Boys' Jeans and Overalls


Figure 1.--Ovearalls were commonly worn on the farm and by workingmen by the late 19th century. The were hardly considered fashionable and were not worn by city boys much until the late 1940s. The one exception was coveralls made for little boys.

No clothing item is more associated with America than the once humble blue jeans or overalls as they were once called. The standard overalls of Levi Strausswere originally work pants for me only. They now appear in a variety of different syles and garments from baseball hats to baggy jeans. Jeans assumed more importance in a boy's and girl's wardrobe around the world during the second half of the 20th century than virtually any other garment. jeans.

Levi Strauss

America has been called a nation of immigrants and it is astounding the contribution that immigrants have made to America. This is the case in the clothing industry as well as many other American industries. No item of clothing is more associated with American than jeans. Yet jeans were created by a Jewish immigrant recently arrived from Germany. For many years jeans or overalls as they were called were associated with Levi Strauss and the company he founded. Many referred to jeans as "Levis".

German founder

Blue jeans, a central symbol of modern American culture, were in fact the creation of a 19th century German Jewish immigrant, Levi Strauss. He was born Löb Strauss in 1829 at Buttenheim, Bavaria. The fact that he was to become famous for making working pants and was from Bavaria is interesting. Bavaria is also famous for another kind of working pants. Bavarian farmers had for years been wearing long-wearing leather pants--usually knee breeches which was the style in the 18th century for mens' pants. It was from these leather pants that that lederhosen evolved.

Emmigration to America

Teenage Löb, his two sisters and his mother sailed for America in 1847, where they joined half-brothers Jonas and Louis in New York, joining their dry goods business of his older brothers. He changed his name to the more familar Levi. America was a popular location for German immigrants in the 19th century and the Germans became one of the most important immigrant groups. The forefathers of one of HBC's authors, for example, immigrated from Germany in 1848.

San Francisco store

Levi in 1853 became an American citizen. His brothers decided that he should go to California to open the west coast branch of the family firm. He sailed to San Francisco taking the route through Panama. He wanted to take advantage of the gold rush boom which had begun in 1848. Strauss and his brother set up their small dry goods store near the waterfront, where they could easily get shipments from the Strauss brothers back from the east. The store grew into a prosperous business by the 1870s.

Canvas and denim

California when Strauss arrived was a wild place. The Gold Rush had brought mostly men from all over the world to find gold. Few succeded, but opportunitis and jobs abounded for miners, lumberjacks, cowboys, and workers of all description. Tough, long-wearing work pants were in great demand. Few men brought wives with them and many worked in remote locations. Levi Strauss discovered rugged pants for miners made out of sturdy brown canvas and they became a best-selling item. Once available supplies of canvas were exhausted, he turned to denim, which he dyed blue to become what is known now as blue jeans. Denim at the time was used functional purposes like awnings are apolstery. It was not at the time used for clothing. The now famous denim material used in the manufacture of early jeans came from the Amoskeag Mill in New Hampshire, although the origins were French.

Revits

Jacob Davis, a taylor, began using metal rivents at spots on pants where seems were subject to the greatest stress. His pants proved popular, as the pants wore longer with the revits. Davis operated only a small taylor shop. He wanted to patent his invention, but didn't have the money. Davis in 1872 offered Strauss a half interest in his patent if Strauss would pay the $68 fee. Davis and Strauss were granted the patent and Strauss was on its way to making the "improved" jeans. The patent gave them the exclusive right to make and market the long-wearing work pants for 35? years. This was to make the two men rich. Strauss and Davis began making copper riveted "waist overalls" from sturdy denim material.

Boys in the 19th Century

While Levi Straus introduced overalls appeared in the mid-19th century. Tey first caught on for miners in California. They are now the icoic garment of the American farmer. I'm not sure, however, just when farmers began wearing them. They do not seem to have been common farm wear during the Civil War. we do not notice boys wearing them in the photographic record during the 19th century. This would presumavly be because mothers would dress up their boys in their best clothes for a portrait. But we alo do noy notice boys wearing overalls in early school portraits. The school portraits suggest that children did dress up for school to sone extent, but we suspect that schoolwear was a reasonable reflection of actual clothing. And we do not see boys commonly wearing overalls to school until the turn of the 20th century. So we are unsure just to what extent boys wore them in the 19th century.

Usage

Jeans or overalls as they were first called were designed as work clothes and this was how they were used for decades. Overalls was the old name for jeans. I remember my dad always referred to them in the 1950s as overalls which I didn't understand at the time as us boys called them blue jeans.) Far from today's fashionable image, the original overalls quickly became popular among laborers because of their almost indestructable nature. By the 1890s farm boys began wearing overalls and begin to see them in rural schools. In most cases it was boys from poor rural families who wore them. The design was exactly the same as those made in men's sizes. Overalls wre nor seen as children's wear in the 19th century. They were seen as work clothes and as many children worked in the 19th century, they were worn by children, especially children in rural areas. The first overalls specifuically designed for children appeared in 1912, and were marketed as Koveralls.


Figure 2.--A barefoot boy in overalls with a fishing pole is a virtual symbol of American boyhood in the early 20th century.

Company Reputation

During the early 20th century the reputation of the Levi Strauss company slowly grew. The company in 1915 received the Highest Award for waist overalls at the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. The company began to purchase denim from Cone Mills in North Carolina. The company opened a factory in Frankfort, Indiana to make Koveralls, the first product sold nationally. This was important as until the 1920s, Strauss's products were sold in regional, mostly western markets, and were virtually unknown unknown in the eastern cities. This began to change as jeans began to appear in the east after World War I during the 1920s. Other companies by this time were making overalls and jeans. It was Levi Strauss that was most associated with jeans and many Americans by the 1920s were calling them "levis" instead of overalls.

The Depression

The Depression which began after the 1920 stock nmarket crash had a major impact on the company. The demand for Levi Strauss products declined. Workers at the Valencia Street facility were put on a short work week to avoid layoffs, and others are given non-manufacturing tasks such as constructing the hardwood floors that are still in use today. Although the comopany did not immediately benefit, the hard wearing overalls were often purchased by many distressed Americans and the buying patterns set in the 1930s carried over into more prosperous times.

The Movies

It was a most American media, Hollywood movies, that began changing the image of lowly work overalls to a popular fashion. The popularity of blue jeans was aided by their appearance in westerm movies. The cowboy movie was a Hollywood staple. Cowboys of course were pictured as wearing jeans without the front bib associated with overalls. Many cowboys cuffed their jeans. Boys flocked to the movies to see the latest western and the cow boys in these movies from Tom Mix to John Wayne wore jeans. Suddenly eastern city boys wanted to wear jeans and they wanted to cuff them like their cowboy heros. These movies spread the word about Levi's, because the actors in them were wearing Levi's. Since people tend to follow what the stars are wearing, most people of this time went out and bought a pair of jeans. The year 1936 inscribed the entrance of the trademarked red "Levi's" tab sewn on the back pocket of the jeans. This was the first label placed on the outside of a piece of clothing. By 1939 the blue denim "waist overall" was not just worn by the blue- collar worker, but also by college students in California and Oregon, who started wearing blue jeans as a fad. Before long this fad had gained status of its own.

World War II

The War years (1941-45) in America saw changes in the design of the waist overalls, due to government mandates regarding the conservation of raw materials. Finally, during World War II jeans were an established part of the war effort. Blue jeans were an essential commodity for the war effort. At this time blue jeans were only available to defense workers. It has been noted that this restriction later contributed to the success of Levi's. U.S. soldiers and defense workerrs wore their Levi's® pants and jackets overseas, giving the products their first international exposure. The popularity of all things America in liberated countries help lay the ground work for the future spread of blue jeans, even penetrting the Iron Curtain after the War.


Figure 3.--Marlon Brando's appearance in "The Wild One" during 1953 wearing jeans, along with a black leather jacket and Harley Davison mototcyle, changed the image of blue jeans from cowboys to a more rebellious one--making them tremdously populae with teenagers.

Post-war Popularity

Jeans in the post World War II era began to become increasingly accepted by adults, teenagers and children.
Adults: Fashions such a overalls and "T" shirts worn by American soldiers and sailors spread throughout the country after the war. Jeans for adults were strictly for casual wear for te first few years, but after the War they were being worn all over the country.
Teenagers: Hollywood again intervened. Films like The Wild One (1953) with Marlon Brando and Rebels Wiyhout a Cause (1955) with James Dean pictured teens and young men challenging the system. The gritty edge of these films helped to give jeans a non-conforming image that appealed to teenage Americans and soon teenagers in Europe. When Brando and Dean stepped before the film camera wearing their blue jeans the whole world was watching. Their representation of rebellion caused the status of blue jeans to change almost obernight from a symbol of the rugged frontier, to a symbol of defiance towards the adult world. The movies also changed the way teenage girls viewed jeans. No less than Marilyn Monroe appeared in the movies attired. Teenage girls were soon wearing jeans along with the boys.
Children: Hard-wearing jeans were in many ways ideal for children. American boys had begun wearing jeans like never before in the 1950s. (Before the 1930s and cowboy westerns, mostly poor rural boys had worn jeanss.) Only a few years after the War, jeans were being worn by virtually all American boys. Few American boys grew up without wearing jeans, especially for play clothes. Boys in public schools were allowed to wear them to elementary school. (In America primary schools are usually called elementary schools.) Throogh the 1960s, however, they were not commonly allowed in high schools.

Styles

Jeans in the 1950s were only made as long pants for boys in America. Jeans came out as short pants in England and Europe in the 1960s, but American boys never wore short pants jeans until the 1970s when "cut-offs" became popular.

Marketing

The Levi Strauss company in the 1950s attempted to take advantage of the fashion trends and expanded their market beyound work clothes for men and play clothes for boys. more focus was placed on the post-War baby boomers and the growing popularity of jeans created a surge in denim sales. By 1950, Levi's was marketing jeans with double knees, zippers for people, who did not like the button fly and lighter blues, a line of causal slacks for men. The 1950s left a lasting impression for the world of blue jean manufacturers because there were many changes occurring in the industry. For The copmpany conceived of "Lighter Blues" casual slacks and the "Denim Family" line mark the company's entry into the sportswear business.

Popular culture

Jeans as casual wear was not immediately accepted. Most American high schools banned them. Girls in the 1950s and even 60s wore dresses to school. Boys in high school were expected to wear slacks. Boys wearing jeans were punished or sent home. A U.S. Army colonel on an American base in Frankfurt, Germany during 1954 banned military wives from wearing blue jeans, saying it reflected poorly on the United States. Neither the U.S. or Red Ary, howrver, could stop the spread of jeansd. Levi's® jeans were exhibited at the "American Fashion Industries Presentation" in Moscow during 1959, just as the Cold War was reaching a critical stage.


Figure 4.--American boys during the 1950s would not wear short pants jeans, but would instead roll their pants legs up when needed.

Material

The original jeans or overalls were made from canvass, but denim soon became standard and emensely popular. Jeanns have also been made in corduroy. A reader writes, "We are trying to research if there are any modern uses of weaving nylon or kevlar into denim for jeans? Would you happen to know of any, or know how we could find out? Has the technology changed from the uncomfortable Sears ToughSkins brand jeans?" HBC has no information on this, but would be interested in any information our readers may have.

Social conscious

Levi Strauss and the company he founded was a trend setter in more than a fashion sence. The company opened a plant in Blackstone, Virginia and demanded that it be fully integrated. This was contrary to local custom and before government mandated integration policies. Fashion was the company's focus in the 1960s and a steady stream of new products were introduced. Levi Strauss products in 1961 were exhibited in Paris, the center of world fashion, to help fuel the steadily expanding international demand. The company introduces pre-shrunk Levi's® jeans in 1963 and STA-PREST® slacks--a wrinkle free products--in 1964. The company forms Levi Strauss International in 1965, beginning the company's expansion into Europe and Asia. The company aired its first television commercial in 1966. Levi's® jeans are exhibited in Moscow, Prague, and Warsaw.

Modern trends

The company continued its domestic and marketing program in the 1970s and 80s, helping to gain acceptance of jeans as fashionable clothes. The company goes public in 1971. The first Original Levi's® Stores are opened in Europe during 1983. LS&CO. was awarded the official outfitter designation for the U.S. Olympic Team and the Los Angeles Games staff. The "Levi's® 501® Blues" television campaign first airs at the Olympic Games. LS&CO. introduces the Dockers® Brand in the United States during 1986. LS&CO received Harvard University's Dively Award for Corporate Public Initiative. The Leevi Strauss company's marketing efforts have been enormously successful. Denim jeans by the 1970s were not just a part of the United States but a worldwide and cultural phenomenon for everyone. The craze for blue jeans was growing and there was no end in sight. The year 1977 marked Levi Strauss & Co. success in becoming the largest clothing maker not just in the United States, but in the whole world. Then by the early 1980's, it saw some declines in sales. Then when 1984 was approaching, Levi's thought it would bounce back into the top spot. Levi's teamed up with the 1984 Olympics to promote its outerwear division. Unfortunately, sales remained on the down end. This caused the Levi's to do some major restructuring and cut backs within the company. Things were looking up in the late 1980's when Levi's introduced its line of upscale men's pants, Dockers. Finally in 1990 Levi's sales are steadily climbing because of an increase in innovative finishes, such as bleaching and stonewashing its blue jeans. Today the introduction of the wide leg jeans and other new designs are helping Levi's to remain at the top of the apparel industry

Boys and Jeans

Simon Davis, son of Jacob Davis and the superintendent of the Valencia Street factory, conceived of play clothes for children made out of denim, a novel idea at the time. He invents "Koveralls," a one-piece play suit for children. The use of jeans, except as work clothes, limited until after the Second World War. Before the war jeans were worn as work clothes on farms and ranches. American city boys, however, rarely wore jeans. They generally wore more formal pants, until the 1940s usually knickers. They were virtually unknown in England and Europe. American boys after the World War II began wearing jeans. At first they were only worn for play. Elementary boys were allowed to wear them to school, but they were banned at most secondary schools. Interestingly, despite the fact that jeans wete widely worn by boys of all ages in the 1940s and 50s, they were entirely long pants. Jeans were no available as short pants. In many cases during the 1950s, boys might play in jean and then dress up in a short pants suit to go to church or other more formal occasion. many occasions such as birthday parties might involve suits and ties in the 1940s and even the 50s which now involve casual clothes in more relaxed modern era. Slowly the lowly jeans became more acceptable. One major factor, of course, was that boys who had grown up in the 1940s and 50s wearing jeans, did not have the same attitudes toward them. By the 1970s designer jeans appeared and were especially popular among girls. Jeans were always worn by boys in the 1950s as long pants. A popular style of cut-off jeans appeared during the late 1960s. Apparently boys were willing to wear "cut-offs" emphazing that they were casual wear , but not regular shorts. Of course most of the "cut-offs" were made that way and not jeans cut off like mom. Jeans in the 1990s have become an important fashion statement. Jeans are now often worn in dressy occasions and not just as casual clothes. Men and young adults now wear jeans instead of slacks with sports jackets.


Figure 5.--American boys of all ages were wearing bibfront jeans in the 1990s, both the long and short pants style,

Country Trends

Jeans are of course most associated with America where they originated and were first worn. For nearly a century after they were created, jeans were primarily worn in America and to some extent neighboring Canada by working men. Thus the early history of jeans is primarily an American story. American boys began wearing jeans more commonly in the 1910s with the development of Kovealls. It was only after World War II that jeans began to be worn by first teenagers and then younger children in Europe and eventually became a global phenomenon. Trends and time lines in individual countries vary widely. There are also stylistic variations among countries. One of the most significant is that short pants jeans, except cur-offs, were not very popular in America, but proved popular in Europe. At this time we have some information on America, but very limited information on other coubtries.

Types

HBC has noted many different styles of bibfront overalls since the late 1990s. The were initially a man's work garment. By the 1920s, however, probably earlier, they were being made in boys' sizes. Until relatively recently they were always made with long pants.

Regular jeans


Jean shorts

Jean shorts, except cut-offs have no been commonly worn in America. They were very popular, however, in Europe and Japan. They were often in worn very short styles, especially during the 1970s and 80s.

Baggy jeans

The grunge look and hip-hop styles appearred in the 1990s. Many boys want large baggy jeans as baggy as possible with waists several sizes to large. There is some disagreement among the origin of baggy jeans. Some observers seem to think people in the Hip Hop community began to copy the pants that prisoners were issued while they were incarcerated and thus lend their attire to prison chic? Others are convinced that the baggy jean actually has some roots in the skate/snowboard industry. It just happens that when the urban hip-hop and core skate crowds get together it can be explosive.

Bibfront

Overals appeared in the mid 19th century. They became widely worn in rural America, probably by the 1890s. Many, but not all were made in denim. Some bibfront overalls were made in stripped drill material instead of blue denim. Theu were commonly worn by railroad employees and thus knopwn as railroad overalls.

Carpenter pants

The Carpenter style of blue jeans (both long and short) now is the most popular. These are the ones with the multiple pocket and the loop on the side for a hammer. This style has been worn for many tears by men, but only in the 1990s bcame popular for boys and teenagers.

Cuffs

A HBC reader reports, "When I was a kid in the 50's they were folded inside out in a nice straight cuff, like cowboys wore them in the movies and on TV." HBC also remembers jeans being worn in this manner. During the winter, some boys wore jeans with aplaid lining so the plaid showed at the cuff. Apparently there were some regional differences. A California reader reports, "Later, it was cool to fold them outside in, so the cuff wouldn't show, which, at the time was considered "geeky". Then in the mid to late 80's, kids rolled up the cuffs and did so that it was just at the top of the sock, so that when you would sit, skin would show. This was popular in to the 90's and now kids wear them long and don't cuff them at all, so that they eventually get frayed up. Again, interesting contradictions that each group would swear was the correct way to wear them."

Chronology

Jean styles have varied greatly over the past 100 years. They have followed trends in American history and industrial development. The history of jeans ave been affected by Eueopeam immigration, the Gold Rush, inventions, American industrial development, demograpic change, social class, wars, Hollywood, and some of the earlist American brand advertising. After World War II, they began to spread overseas--first to Europe. By the 1960s they were an international phenomenon.
The 1920s: Overalls were commonly worn by boys, especially in rural America. They were made in many different colors and material. Many were made with matching jackets, although the style was generally longer than the popular modern jean jackets. They were still not commonly worn by city boys.
The 1930s: Farm boys wore jeans in the early 30s, but jeans were less common in urban America. Most boys wore knickers, especially hard wearing corderoy knickers. The Hollywood westerns began to cage this as even city boys began askg for jeand like their favorite movie cowboy wore.
The 1940s: As knickers disappeared, they were replaced by jeans--but primarily for play clothes. Jeans were quite different than modern jeans. A new pair was stiff as a board and a boy had to struggle to get his legs in them. Girls, at least city girls, rarely wore them.
The 1950s: Jeans continued to be worn for play and by elementary school boys. Often boys' jeans had double knees are plaid flannel linings that you could see when you rolled over the cuff at the ankles. Girls increasingly wore them as the decade progressed. Tennagers by the end of the decade wanted tight jeans. Most high schools banned jeans. Boys in Europe and America began wearing jean shortsd--but not in America. A HBC reader writes, "In America during the 1950s, the coolest jeans were Levi's because of Marlan Brando's films, I think, they also cost a dollar more a pair in most places. I recall Lee which I didn't like, Wrangler which I did like and another brand who's name I can't recall. It may have been "Western" but I'm not sure. Perhaps other readers may remember the name."
The 1960s"Cut-offs" appear for boys. Tight jeans continued to be popular with teenagers. Slowly they became more fashionable and acceptable at some schools as designer jeans appeared. Jeans become a virtual uniform of the anti-war movement.
The 1970sJeans by the 1970s became an American fashiion statement. Bell-bottom styles as do studs and other designer work. Stone-washed jeans are introduced. Jeans increasingly dominated children's clothes in the 1970s.
The 1980sWorn-looking jeans become popular, even tears and holes become desirable. Bibfront overalls once worn by laborers and then younger boys began to be worn by boys anf girls of all ages. By the late 1980s bibfront overalls with short pants appeared. Jeans began repacing other types of casual pants in the 1980s.
The 1990sThe grunge look and hip-hop styles appear. Many boys want large baggy jeans and the baggier the better. There is some disagreement over the origin of baggy jeans. Some observers seem to think people in the Hip Hop community began to copy the pants that prisoners were issued while they were incarcerated and thus lend their attire to prison chic? Others are convinced that the baggy jean actually has some roots in the skate/snowboard industry. It just happens that when the urban hip hop and core skate crowds get together it can be explosive. While still dominate, other types of casual pants were available. Track or sweat pants were very popular. By the late 1990s corderoy pants regained popularity.

Clothing Catalogs

Considerable space was devoted to overalls well before jean became popular. At this time, however, we only have information from a 1922 catalog. There were a number of styles, colors, amd materials.

Personal Experiences

Short comments: Brief comments about jeans

American boy: 1940s-50s

American boys: Jeans, Jeans, Jeans in the 1950s

American boy: 1970s






HBC





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Created: December 15, 1998
Last updated: 7:30 PM 1/31/2008