The multicultural history of denim

I’m reading Tim Gunn’s new book Tim Gunn’s Fashion Bible, and I’m enjoying it a lot. If you’re interested in the history of fashion it’s a worthwhile read, while avoiding the tediously pointless detail that some academic works on the history of costume can have. It’s organized by type of garment rather than by time period or gender, i.e. there’s a section on ties and belts, there’s a section on pants, there’s a section on dresses…

I was interested to read his take on the history of denim – I’d always heard the serge de Nimes shortened to denim tale, but apparently that’s not the whole story. Gunn writes:

The French serge de Nimes was long thought to be a cotton twill, too, but we now know that it was wool. Accordingly, the new theory is that denim’s origin is British and that the French name was given to the English product in order to give it prestige. The fabric from Genoa used to make sailors’ pants was fustian, a sturdy blue fabric, but not what we would recognize as denim. in other words, the American wardrobe staple’s likeliest origin is this: a German inventor used an English fabric with a French name to make an Italian pant.

Then, of course, the German Jew Levi Strauss moved to San Francisco and invented practical miners’ pants out of denim and jeans became the prototypical American garment, which has now become the most ubiquitous style of clothing probably ever in the entire history of the world.

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