Blue jeans everywhere
March 26, 2013 2:44 AM   Subscribe

Why are blue jeans so ubiquitous? And why blue?
posted by devnull to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (15 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
You are only going to get opinions on this one.

They are ubiquitous because they are practical, wear well, are fashionable, and...well, whatever.

Blue is traditional, originally the fabric was dyed with indigo, one of the few cheap, colorfast dies available in that day and age. Indigo, BTW, was a major crop in the southern US. (copy and pasted from the internet).
posted by HuronBob at 4:02 AM on March 26, 2013

A basic google search brings up a bunch of results. Also Wikipedia and a variety of the sources at the bottom. Give it a harder search on your own before using AskMe.
posted by Rodrigo Lamaitre at 4:58 AM on March 26, 2013

Confirmation bias?

Oh, come on. Jeans are now a very popular article of casual dress around the world.
[1] Blue jeans in the last thirty years have attained such world wide popularity that they have come to be considered an American icon. [2]

That second page argues that "As a result of this phenomenon, jeans have the ability to conceal class distinction. When a person wears blue jeans--be it President Bill Clinton or a truck driver--the viewer is nebulous about the beholder's status. This power to overcome class distinction accounts for its popularity." I quite disagree; I think part of their popularity involves their ability to confer class status. "For many people under 50, the question isn't so much "Are jeans appropriate?" as "Which jeans are appropriate?" If jeans had a social register, rankings would involve brand, embellishment, and fabric condition—the difference between ripped Wranglers and a crisp pair of Rag & Bones." [3] Ill-fitting jeans made from cheap fabric are a class tell just like a $200-plus brand name. But it does mean one can play-act at being classless; they are, after all, 'just jeans.' It is a way to distinguish oneself with a minimum of fuss -- jeans are easier to source and care for than a lot of other clothing, and aren't as in-your-face as other status markers. (See also: semi-recent Ask discussion over whether or not 'boot leg' jeans were still in fashion or markers of naivete there. There is an idea that jeans are durable; this isn't entirely true for the ladder-climbing sorts of jean-wearers.) Nobody is going to confuse Kate Middleton's denim with "street" denim.

OTOH I do admit there is probably something to the idea that they tie in nicely with the mythology of the classless, egalitarian USA thanks to that 'play-acting' ability. The styling, construction, price, and accessories may be totally different, but for many purposes, jeans is jeans. See, for example, widespread commentary on Steve Jobs' 'uniform.' (His jeans were on the cheap side, but his mock neck was $175; glasses, $495 [4])

There are lots of little histories [5] on blue jeans that flesh out explanations for their popularity.

posted by kmennie at 4:58 AM on March 26, 2013 [6 favorites]

The Levi Strauss historian extensively answers your "why blue" question (and goes into the popularity of jeans in different groups and for different uses) in this interesting paper: A Short History of Denim. You can see some of that earlier material she mentions in these 17th century paintings.
posted by Houstonian at 4:59 AM on March 26, 2013 [4 favorites]

[Despite its brevity, this question is actually rather concrete and specific in this moderator's humble opinion, and I suspect a significant part of the answer may not be easily Googleable, or be quite as clear-cut as it seems. Please limit your comments to answers and do not criticize the question here. The contact form and MetaTalk are always at your disposal.]
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane (staff) at 5:26 AM on March 26, 2013 [12 favorites]

It has occurred to me in the past that a Victorian time-traveller to the late 20th century might have been less puzzled by TVs and planes than the fact that everyone, man, woman and child, was wearing blue trousers...??

I think the classless argument, or rather the egalitarian, demotic argument, has some validity. As an associated issue, while Houstonian clearly has a point about varities, jeans can serve as a way of opting out of fashion/dress decisions, while still being able to feel that you are basically cool.

On why blue succeeded, and why jeans did not change colour generally, as they could presumably easily have done; a successful universal garment has to be wearable by men (longstanding western sartorial tradition says it's relatively OK for women to dress up in men's clothes but really not the other way round); and for similarly long-standing cultural reasons bright colours, red, yellow, etc, are not going to be universally acceptable to men. However, to be really successful the colour also needs to be recognisable, not just the traditional trouser black or subfusc. Blue fits these criteria; it's distinctive but not 'unmanly' - blue is a cold, hard, rational colour, which relates to traditional conceptions of masculinity. The practical overtones of a working garment obviously help with that, too.

posted by Segundus at 6:08 AM on March 26, 2013 [9 favorites]

I think that if you look at most groups of humans throughout most of history then you would notice this same pattern of most people wearing something that looked the same. Tribal societies which make their own clothes from skins and woven fabrics do not have the kind of mass production facilities that allow jeans to be made - but the clothes that they make still conform to tribal norms - like these Massai costumes which conform in terms of colour and style. I guess that the need to feel we belong and the unwillingness to stand out too much - at least sometimes - are pretty universal. So I think there is an aspect to your answer which goes "if it were not blue jeans that we were all wearing then it would be something else".

These days one reason why everybody wears jeans is because you can buy them anywhere. And the reason why that is is because they can easily be made or shipped anywhere. Going back further in time the ingredients were more exotic: neither large quantities of cotton nor the tropical indigofera plant used to dye it blue were found anywhere near Nimes. And if, as Houstonian's link suggests, the name was a rouse by British merchants to make their fabric sound more exotic - then they would still have been getting their raw materials from the furthest stretches of empire.
posted by rongorongo at 6:24 AM on March 26, 2013

Oh - and the cultivation of indigofera and the cultivation of cotton were both common in South Carolina. So it would be easy to pick up both the cotton and the means to dye it - and that dyed colour was going to be blue.
posted by rongorongo at 6:30 AM on March 26, 2013

In addition to the above, I find that blue jeans go with everything, are durable, don't wrinkle or show dirt easily, and can be flattering on just about anyone in the right cut. In short, they are EXTREMELY practical. I think this might account for at least some of their popularity, along with being an American icon/symbol of social equality etc.
posted by walla at 6:33 AM on March 26, 2013 [5 favorites]

Doris Lessing says somewhere that World War II was won by armies wearing tight blue trousers so it should not be too surprising that the whole world then took to wearing tight blue trousers for decades.
posted by zadcat at 7:12 AM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

De Nimes is a Vice article with interesting points on how jeans conqured the world. My favorite bit is about jeans in the USSR:

Ferguson’s point was observable on an international scale, as a Cold War-era sociological conundrum: As cheap, widely available proletarian clothing, jeans were the ultimate paradoxical symbol of consumer culture for the USSR. He summed it up nicely: “Perhaps the greatest mystery of the entire Cold War is why the Worker’s Paradise could not manage to produce a decent pair of jeans.”
posted by llin at 7:36 AM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Because the Denim Curtain came down in the early 1970s when schools abandoned their dress codes.
posted by Rash at 12:04 PM on March 26, 2013

Because history is told by the victor, and people crave conformity.

Some kind of fabric & style of clothing will always rise to the fore as the default choice for people when they don't want to stand out too much or make a statement or have to think too hard when dressing.

Since about the mid-late 1960s it's been jeans. Earlier, with Dean & Brando they were symbols of youthful male rebellion (you can largely ignore the slave mythologisation), then they became unisex (almost uniquely so), and from that point on they rode the coattails of the baby boomers as they aged & gained cultural power.
posted by UbuRoivas at 1:56 PM on March 26, 2013

(you can largely ignore the slave mythologisation)

Sorry, I meant: except insofar as the "black" aspect of jeans was what made them cool & transgressive & rebellious for the likes of Dean & Brando's generation.

The rest is just the familiar story of "rebellion" becoming co-opted by marketing to become mainstream, and to repeat: it's all about the generational story of the baby boomers. Jeans hit a massive decline in the west around the time the children of the boomers grew up & reached the point of rejecting their parents' (fashion) values.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:13 PM on March 26, 2013

Just one datapoint: I'm in a line of work where I can choose between dressier casual or a suit. One of the reasons for chosing to wear jeans is that I like the feel of the heavier fabric. Your traditional woolen suit trousers make me feel like I'm wearing pyjama bottoms.
posted by Sourisnoire at 6:24 AM on April 4, 2013

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