Jeans were made for work. That’s what those metal rivets were for. The original denim work clothes were overalls, made entirely of cotton. The truncated version, jeans, were called waist overalls and emerged in 19th-century San Francisco. These denim pants could take immense wear and tear, except around the pockets, which would often pull away from the pants before the pants had worn out their usefulness. A tailor in Nevada had the idea to reinforce the pockets with copper rivets and got a man named Levi Strauss to help him undertake their manufacture.
Jeans were also made for play. Until the last several decades, no one would have dreamed of wearing denim to work or school—it was simply too casual. Men might don their jeans on fishing trips and children might wear them on weekends, but many people were outraged at the idea of them being worn for anything but casual leisure activities. Bing Crosby, one of America’s most popular singers and entertainers, was turned away from a hotel while on vacation in Canada because he tried to check in wearing blue jeans. Even in the 1970s it was a novelty for students to get to wear their jeans to school on the first Earth Day. Slacks and skirts were still the norm.
Jeans are also made playfully. They’ve been reinvented as skirts, jackets, and even shoes. Designer jeans often rework the form or elements of jeans to create an artistic statement. Oversized pockets, extra rivets, and elaborate embroidery put form over function. A variety of washes and cuts have made jeans a fashion item as never before. High-waisted, low-waisted, skinny, or flared, jeans have been elevated from their utilitarian position in the gold fields of California to strut on the red carpet.