Boomers and Torn Jeans: The Evolution from Time-to-Replace to High Fashion

While riding public transportation this week, Mister Boomer had a flashback when he spied a teenage girl sitting across from him. She was wearing blue jeans that tapered down her legs to her shoes, but what stood out was, in winter weather no less, her right knee protruded through a lateral cut in the garment’s leg.

Denim had a reputation for being a strong and durable fabric that made it popular for work clothes for people doing manual labor in the late 1800s, especially farming and mining. After WW II, suburbs were created to house the growing Baby Boom and some men brought their denim farm wear with them. Denim jeans began to be manufactured for women in the late 1950s as the wearing of jeans as casual wear slowly increased. But it was the movies of the 1950s that caught the eye of Baby Boomers and started the ball rolling for jeans to become the ultimate fabric of our lives. [Read Mister B’s take on the history: Tangled Up in Blue (Jeans)].

Mister Boomer recalls getting his first jeans as a pre-teen in the early 1960s. He remembers that jeans were reserved for play wear, as there were definite differences between work, play and Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes that were reserved for church, weddings, funerals and important business meetings. Yet even at play, should extra wear or a tear appear in our jeans, our mothers would see to it that the clothes were repaired or replaced, lest they be thought of as unfit mothers. The idea that a girl or boy with a tear in their jeans that extended the width of a knee could leave the house without their mother stopping them was unheard of. A tear in a pocket could result in darning the offending hole with matching thread. A tear in a knee might require a patch, which could be a scrap of older jean fabric sewn over the tear, or, since our moms wanted to keep up with the time-saving inventions of the modern age, an iron-on patch. These patches were rounded-corner rectangles consisting of a thin blue fabric that was made stiff by a coating on the back. The patch was placed over a tear or hole and a hot iron was pressed on it to heat the coating — an adhesive — that would attach to the jeans as it cooled.

Mister Boomer hated those patches for several reasons. First, it marked the wearer’s family as poorer than other families who could afford new jeans; second, the patches were almost always darker than the pants fabric, making the patch stick out like a sore thumb; and third, it was immensely annoying to Mister B that the patch corners — even though rounded — tended to break free and curl after a few wearings and washings.

Mister B thinks it was The Summer of Love –1967– that marked the unofficial coronation of blue jeans as the chosen garment of a new generation. Slowly but surely jeans — bell bottom styles by that time — were worn more often and accepted in more places. Inevitably, wear and tear started to appear. Boomers solved the dilemma by covering tears and holes with embroidered fabric patches. American flags, oval peace symbols, flowers, butterflies, psychedelic op art, marijuana imagery, motorcycle and rock band circle and square patches could not only extend the life of their jeans, but up the cool factor. The patches were an individualization that often represented a statement against the Establishment or a solidarity with the working class.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that large groups of young people started intentionally wearing torn or ripped jeans as the fashion culture borrowed a Bohemian style. Jeans that had a lived in, distressed and even torn look became high-priced fashion items in their own right. The trend faded slightly in the 1990s, but resurfaced in the 2000s, now becoming a regular part of young people’s wardrobes as “artistically” and “strategically” cut, ripped and torn jeans are worn by fashion models, celebrities and high school students alike.

So here we are, back to the girl with the knee sticking out of her torn jeans and Mister Boomer’s flashback. He couldn’t help but wonder how much she had paid for that expert tear, and what her mother thought of them.

Did you personalize your jeans with patches, boomers? Were you covering up holes or making a statement?

Boomers Got Tangled Up in Blue (Jeans)

At this point in boomer history, it’s safe to say that the phrase, “as American as apple pie” can be replaced with, “as American as blue jeans.” Yet this wasn’t always the case. The universal popularity of jeans can in large part be attributed to our generation’s adoption of the garment.

Blue jeans have, in one form or another, been around for centuries. In particular, garments made with a durable cotton-based twill fabric have been traced to the French city of Nimes as far back as the 1600s. Before that time, “jean” or “jeane” was known in the city of Genoa, Italy. This Italian fabric was made from cotton, and very similar to corduroy. It is said that textile manufacturers in Nimes tried to duplicate the “jeane” fabric but were unsuccessful, finally arriving at what they called serge de Nimes, which was later shortened to denim when English shops imported the fabric. Denim fabric is characterized by a diagonal weaving process that combines two or more layers of thread. Since one layer was dyed with indigo and the other remained white, it gave denim its unique appearance as well as strength.

Denim made its way to the British colonies, but was almost exclusively used in overalls for farmers. By the era of the Industrial Revolution of the late 1800s, miners and factory workers adopted denim overalls for the fabric’s long-lasting reputation.

In the 1860s a man named Levi Strauss was motivated by the gold rush to move to San Francisco. A tailor named Jacob Davis made denim overalls for Strauss that he wore while mining. Legend has it that Davis, tired of having to resew the pockets of Strauss’ overalls, sought a way to reinforce them, thus saving both men the bother of repeatedly fixing the workwear. In 1871, Davis came up with a solution: he placed copper rivets at the corners of the pockets — the stress points — to make them less susceptible to tearing. When Davis saw that his solution worked well for Strauss, he thought other miners and workers might want a more durable garment as well. He decided to patent his invention, but lacked the funds to do so. He approached Strauss for an investment equal to the patent filing fee and the two became business partners in the company that became known as Levi Strauss & Co. A patent was issued and the two began manufacturing what was then known as waist overalls in 1873.

For the next 75 years, jeans were relegated to workwear, and in particular, work needing a high degree of manual labor, like farming, mining and factory work. It was not until after World War II that returning GIs began wearing jeans in the expanding suburban environment. It looked like jeans would continue their slow evolution into the everyday wardrobe of Americans … until 1955. That was the year that James Dean wore an iconic pair of jeans in the movie, Rebel Without A Cause. Filmed in bright Technicolor, Deans’ jeans were overdyed in order for the color to stand out on the movie screen. His jeans were an instant success with teens, who wanted the same jeans for themselves. However, because the jeans were especially altered for the movie, the “real thing” could never be purchased. Whether it was the movie’s message, Deans’ fashion sense, or the “bad-boy” image his character created, every boy wanted to be like James Dean, and every girl wanted to be with him.

For the first time jeans made their way into everyday fashion, with kids of both sexes rolling up the bottom of each leg to form cuffs, revealing the lighter under-thread like they saw in the movies. (Note: Though Brando wore his pant legs flipped up in The Wild One in 1953, but James Dean did not. His screen test for Rebel Without A Cause in 1955 showed him with folded-up cuffs, but he wore them uncuffed in the movie.) The adult generation who did not understand why kids would want to wear garments intended for workers called them dungarees. The word evolved from British colonial India where dungri referred to a cotton cloth often used for ship sails and later for work clothes. Nonetheless, due to the identification of jeans with bad boys and gangs through movies like Rebel Without A Cause and The Wild One, and rock ‘n roll music with the likes of Elvis Presley, jeans — or dungarees — were quickly banned by school districts in many states. Youth culture had begun to assert its fashion sense, but the Establishment was set on imposing its standards on the emerging generation.

By the mid-60s jeans began supplanting other pants as the teen garment of choice. In Mister Boomer’s opinion, it was the Summer of Love — 1967 — that cemented jeans as a permanent part of the boomer generation’s wardrobe. At that point jeans took on a personal sartorial message with hand drawings, embroidery patches and well-earned rips and tears. Jeans became the daily uniform and symbol that marked a generation interested in an egalitarian utopia.

Young entrepreneurs wanting to outfit the Counter Revolution made and sold jeans in a variety of styles that appealed directly to the younger generation — including bell bottoms. The Gap — its name echoing the enlarging rift between generations — opened its doors in 1969, originally marketing only denim and leather items.

Mister Boomer began wearing jeans in the mid-1960s. Naturally, his parents picked out his clothing as a pre-teen, but his opinion was considered. As a result, he didn’t own an actual pair of “blue” jeans until his high school years. Instead those early days were dominated by green jeans (possibly influenced by Captain Kangaroo?) and a pair of deep, dark red jeans that became one of the favorite garments of his entire life. He wore them every summer evening for the year or two he could still fit in them, and was sad to see them go to the giveaway bag. He has never been able to find that color since.

By the 1970s, jeans were a fashion staple for every boomer. Manufacturers marketed all types of “exclusive” jean styles in the hopes of creating a brand that would become synonymous with “cool” fashion. Boomers complied, making fashion stars out of not only the traditional brands of Levi’s, Wrangler and Lee, but also of Jordache, Chic and Sergio Valente, to name a few.

Today you would be hard-pressed to find a man, woman or child between the ages of eight and 80 who doesn’t own at least one pair of jeans. If it weren’t for the Boomer Generation’s wholehearted adoption and elevation of what was a workwear garment for centuries, jeans would still be sold only in the work clothes department.

What role did jeans play in your history, boomers?