In 1849 the California Gold Rush hit the United States and German Immigrant Levi Strauss saw a tremendous opportunity to introduce what we know as the fashion staple Denim Jeans. Strauss opened a shop in 1853 selling American denim garments. The garments he sold were meant to hold up to mining, mud, and dirt; they were riveted for strength.

These heavyweight and durable denim jeans continued their popularity with miners and cowboys for about 100 years, making Levi Strauss a common place name – synonymous with denim.  The popularity of Levi’s was so common place that in 1934 Levi’s released a Lady Levi denim jean- worn for visits to dude ranches or in the home- but never worn in public for fashion.

During WWII American Sportswear Designer, Claire McCardell introduced denim into women’s wardrobes. McCardell loved the origins of its associations with working class America.  The fashion crowd loved it and denim because more widely worn by both men and women.

It wasn’t until the 1950’s and 60’s did denim become known as a marker for social standing beyond the work classing. With movies starring Marlon Brando and James Dean donning the crisp denim look-denim jeans became the marker for a “hood” or “rebel” – a social outcast. So introduced denim jeans as a fashion statement.

By the 1970’s Gloria Vanderbilt made denim jeans a staple in women’s wardrobes.

It was Calvin Klein who catapulted denim to the high fashion runway and ushered in what we now know as fashion denim.

Now in 2017, beyond the utilitarian function of denim jeans and their everyday place in our culture, we have come to understand the environmental strain of manufacturing denim jeans.

Some quick things to knows:

  • Distressed denim can cause small particles of silica and denim to be put in the air which is breathed in by factor workers.
  • It can take about 1,500 gallons of water to grow the cotton needed for one pair of jeans.
  • The blue dye used to make the cotton blue is very harsh; in some areas, this dye has polluted the surrounding water and has been a harsh chemical to breathe in.

Just understanding some of these manufacturing issues can help you to make more informed decisions about not only purchasing your jeans, but also how long you choose to keep your jeans and if it’s possible to repurpose and mend them for longer wear.

Some great vegan and ethical denim brands to check out:

G-Star Raw– created using Bionic Yarn, created from recycled plastics that washes up on the beaches, these jeans are stylish and eco-friendly.

Nudie Jeans–  a men’s denim brand using organic cotton and focusing on ethical work conditions.

Monkee Jeans– a conscious denim brand focused on ethical and organic standards.


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About the Author

June Cruz is the owner and designer of ENAMOUR Design House, an ethical accessory brand.

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