Until the 1960s, jeans were known as "waist overalls."
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Until the 1960s, jeans were known as "waist overalls."

Who knew the California gold rush would spin off a fashion trend that has lasted nearly 150 years? Probably not the gold miners who donned Levi Strauss’ first denim pants. The jeans we wear today as casual apparel initially had a different function, marketed as sturdy work pants that could withstand a day in the mines or manual labor on a farm. And they had a different name, too: waist overalls. Strauss, a Bavarian immigrant who ran a dry goods store in San Francisco during the 1850s, catered to prospectors and settlers looking to strike it rich in California’s gold claims. But while Strauss’ name is sewn into the history of jeans, the idea for heavy-duty apparel actually came from Jacob Davis, a Reno, Nevada, tailor who was a customer at Strauss’ store. Around 1872, Davis approached Strauss with a concept for work pants that used copper rivets and stitching to bulk up the weakest points of traditional pants; within a year the duo had patented their design for denim workwear, initially available in indigo or brown hues. Strauss marketed the waist overalls under the Levi Strauss & Company name, first commissioning seamstresses to stitch the pants together from their homes before building a factory in the 1880s. Over time, Strauss would add designs for other reinforced work clothes such as shirts, true overalls, and coats.

Indigo dye was once used as currency in the United States.
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It's a Fact
Denim originally obtained its distinctive color from indigo dye, an expensive pigment so valued that traders exchanged it for goods around the time of the American Revolution. Inexpensive synthetic dyes first emerged in the 1850s, and today, most jeans are colored with artificial hues.

As the gold rush era wound down, the popularity of jeans grew with the help of Hollywood Westerns of the 1920s and ’30s. World War II skyrocketed denim “dungarees” to popularity thanks to their durability; jeans became standard issue for soldiers and factory workers alike. But it was the postwar ’50s and turbulent ’60s that cemented the pants as everyday wear. Actors such as Marlon Brando in 1953’s The Wild One and James Dean in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause gave denim a counterculture reputation and helped usher in a trendy, new name: jeans, a centuries-old name for denim that originally came from the French name for the port of Genoa, Italy (Génes).

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Numbers Don’t Lie
Amount (in pounds) of cotton needed to make one pair of jeans
Cost of one pair of Levi’s jeans in the 1880s
Approximate length (in feet) of the world’s largest jeans (Peru, 2019)
2021 revenue for Levi Strauss & Co.
$5.8 billion
The tiny front pocket sewn onto jeans was originally meant to hold a _______.
The tiny front pocket sewn onto jeans was originally meant to hold a pocket watch.
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Think Twice
There’s no clear reason why pants come in a “pair.”

While the word “pants” has a generally accepted origin (see below), linguists say there’s no certain answer as to why we identify the one-piece clothing item as a pair. But it could be because some bottoms of the past came in a set of two. The word “pants” is derived from pantaloons, a name for trousers that cropped up in mid-1600s England in connection with the character Pantalone, from the Italian commedia dell’arte, who wore tight breeches and stockings. While most pants and breeches through time have been one piece of apparel, some undergarments — particularly those for women, girls, and young boys during the 18th century — consisted of sleeve-like coverings that were slid on individually and tied together at the waist. Considering that those pantaloons came in a set, some historians believe it's possible that referring to them as a pair stuck around, even for unsplit trousers. Interestingly, pants are considered plurale tantum — a word only ever used in plural form — which is common among other singular items that have two main internal components, such as tweezers, glasses, scissors, and sunglasses.

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