Mental Health

Mandy Kloppers

De Nîmes’ to Denim: The History of Denim and Its Sustainable Future

You’d be hard-pressed to find a wardrobe that doesn’t contain at least one pair of denim jeans. They’re one of the most popular clothing items at our disposal, with a market value size of over 66 billion dollars in 2021.

They’re versatile trousers, worn by a variety of groups in a range of styles for different occasions. But the road to their fashion dominance hasn’t always been a straight one.

Denim trends change continually, and to understand where denim fashion is heading in 2022 and beyond, we must recognise the history of this celebrated material.

Of Nîmes

While you can trace the heavy-woven cotton back to South India in the 11th Century, denim, as it is recognised today, was first produced in Nîmes, France.

This is where we get the name from; the fabric was known as ‘serge de Nîmes’. The name was then contracted to ‘de Nîmes’ meaning ‘of Nîmes’. Ultimately, we end up with the household fabric name we all know today.

The production and use of denim then became popular in the USA in the mid-19th Century, starting a revolution of blue woven cotton.

Practical workwear

We know denim jeans as strong, reinforced trousers. But why would the jeans that you wear down to the park need work-quality durability? Simply put, they were meant for work.

In 1873, Nevada tailor Jacob W. Davis created the first pair of rivet-reinforced denim trousers. They used metal buttons and bolts that secured points of stress in the trousers.

Since then, denim was used for cheap and durable uniforms, particularly for vehicle and railroad engineers. With the combination of denim’s higher fabric weight and cotton’s naturally low thermal conductivity, jeans and denim jackets were particularly suited for industrial settings at the time.

The tough-wearing perception of denim certainly rubbed off on its wearers, setting the stage for its dominance in popular culture.

Tough guys, rebels, and mums

While denim was primarily used as workwear, it slowly began to become a fashion staple. The age of the movie cowboy quickly boosted the fabric’s tough-guy impression, with children dressing up as John Wayne and other gunslingers.

The Golden Age of Hollywood soon expanded denim’s audience, becoming a symbol of rebellion through Marlon Brando, always portrayed as handsome and slick. Denim became desirable.

From then, its popularity became immeasurable. Every group and culture adopted denim and jeans, each for different functions of looks. Skaters would use them for durability and protection; hippies wore them to create community; rappers wore baggy jeans, emulating the culture of hip hop; mothers wore their high-waisted denim for comfort and flexibility.

Before long, jeans became an everyday essential for everyone in their wardrobe. With a combination of styles, garments, and colors that can be worn with denim, there are unlimited ways to wear the fabric.

These styles recur every decade in some variety, whether that be double denim, skinny jeans, or torn jackets.

But in 2022 and beyond, denim trends are as much about using fashion as a force for good as it is about the styles we wear.

Denim for good

Denim has changed its purpose from its creation. From durable workwear, denim has become a symbol of culture and fashion. Now, denim is changing to be a more environmentally considerate fabric.

According to the UN, one pair of jeans takes 7,500 litres of water to make. The use of pesticides and other chemicals during production also means that the production of denim can be damaging to the environment.

To combat this, environmentally conscious designers and retailers are reducing the use of water and chemicals during production. Organic cotton is one way to achieve this, using 91% less water than cotton grown with pesticides and chemicals.

Other processes can also help reduce water use. Gap’s Washwell denim uses 20% less water, saving millions of litres of water.

While denim is used to identify cultures and groups, the mission of denim in the future is unifying. Everyone is in it to create better denim for a better planet.