It has been photographed on such cultural icons as Marilyn Monroe and Andy Warhol.
In the ‘60s it was a symbol of rebellion.
And in the 1970s it became an art canvas. (Remember the exhibitions of appliqued and paint-splattered jeans?) But denim, the blue stuff, is not always what you expect these days.
Forever being reinvented, the fit and finishes have evolved well beyond the classic five-pocket jean.
The styling is fresh enough to keep consumers queuing up to buy more, more, more.
To be sure, it is the quintessential American look worn historically for heavy work and mall shopping. Richard Martin, curator of the Costume Institute at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, wrote a powerful foreword for Levi Strauss’ coffee-table history book.
“… No flag, no costume, no pageant has ever more embodied a nation, and its ambitions and social idealism …,” he said.
And in today’s global market, when American manufacturers have sights set overseas, denim’s red-white-and-blue image has added panache.
Ira Livingston, marketing director for New York-based Cotton Inc., notes that it’s a “traded commodity” in other countries.
And while people offshore may not agree with American politics, denim is highly coveted as an American symbol.
Certainly the fortune of denim has its ups and down.
In the old days the cycle lasted a few seasons or months. In the early 1970s the entry of designer names such as Gloria Vanderbilt and Calvin Klein expanded denim to new status class, and people who never thought of wearing jeans went shopping.
For the first time denim attracted a European following willing to pay a premium price for fashion appeal.
The most recent denim boom has run for a long eight years, although there are signs it may be starting to level off. Denim business enjoyed steady increases of 10 percent every year from 1989 to 1996, when it dropped to a 5 percent increase.
“If it decreased 5 percent, now that would be news,” says Livingston at Cotton Inc.
The popularity of denim recently has attracted a wave of new designer names as diverse globally and stylishly as Todd Oldham, Ana Sui, Emanuel (Ungaro) and Helmet Lang next to the likes of the familiar Gianni Versace, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan’s DKNY, Ralph Lauren’s Polo and Giorgio Armani (AX Armani Exchange).
So what’s new?
Think trendy, sophisticated fashion pieces: a curvy shirt, a minidress, a tube top, a wrap skirt and swishy wide pants as light as silk trousers. Picture denim mixed with silk, leathers and velvets.
Denim has gotten a “lot slicker,” says Erica Vititpong, public relations director of Diesel, the edgy Italian-based denim company. It has moved onto a “whole new level. Now we’re seeing it in a new light because there are so many shapes,” Vititpong says.
The movement to casual days in the workplace may have inspired a new denim spin. If corporate protocol frowns on basic jeans, a denim shirt with a jacket, a denim vest or a dark denim dress is likely to pass the dress codes.
The new airweight denim and denimlike pants are now wide, comfortable and dressy enough for women to wear with a blazer and shirt to the office.
The Lee Co. of Merriam, Kan., a company known best for denim jeans, has built a significant campaign around casual work clothes and Lee’s year-old casual clothing line, Lee Riveted.
Livingston, at Cotton Inc., describes dress-down days and denim as a “perfect marriage.”
One of the newest fashion looks is actually old.
Miles of dark blue indigo line the store racks. It’s a throwback to the ‘70s, well before the age of stone- and acid-washing, and was boosted in part by retro revival of recent years and the fad for vintage store shopping. (It can fade, so to keep the fade to a minimum, some mills recommend dry cleaning or washing denim inside out.)
The color spectrum beyond blue brings a new sophistication dimension with shades such as deep purple, rich reds and black. The colors offer a dressier option to the traditional washed blue five-pocket jeans.
Laminated denim with a gloss is another new look. With all the high-tech shiny fabrics, it’s not surprising to see slick, shiny denim that takes a woman from day into night.
“It’s all-American, sophisticated and urban,” says Elena Hart, a spokeswoman for the Fashion Association, a public relations leg of the apparel industry.
New high-tech fabrics have begun to infiltrate the denim arena. Polyesters, microfibers and Tencel, a wood-pulp fiber, represent what some consider the future phase of the denim look.
Tencel, by DuPont, especially brings an unusually soft, dishcloth feel and more versatility in shape to the pale denim look. And again, thanks to technology, fresh textures have a tactile surface or interesting monochromatic pattern.
As for styling, the waistline has slid south, to the top of the hips.
The hippest shape is the hip-slung, boot-cut pant, a hit with teens and twentysomethings. It, too, is a throwback, to the 1970s and beyond.
It is actually a new version of an old Levi western cowboy jean, 517, says Carmello Cavallaro, public relations spokesman for Levi Strauss.
To accommodate a range of tastes from the baby boomers to the young and funky, and economic levels from mass market jeans to department and specialty stores, the denim market has broadened, says Toni Strutz, director of product development for the Lee Co.
For those with more mature shapes, a little distance past voting age and a yen for comfort, denim pants come in various widths. In a soft fabric with a swish to the leg, such pants do have a appeal of going from casual to dressy, or from Saturday shopping to a Saturday night dinner out.
The shapes tend to be wide, wider and widest, Strutz says.
But at the same time, stretch denim, usually fashioned into a snug-fitting garment such as stovepipe pants, made a strong return in the past 18 months.
“What it’s really all about is individual expression, personal style,” says Levi’s Cavallaro.
But regardless of trends, the relationship Americans have with denim in any form is apparently ongoing.
In a survey commissioned by Cotton Inc. in the first quarter of this year, the average number of denim garments that respondents estimated their wardrobes contained was 14. The survey also measured a positive barometer of 65.6 (neutral line was 50), indicating overall positive response to denim in general.
The NPD Group, a Port Washington, N.Y., consumer research group, reports that 544.3 million pairs of denim jeans were sold to men and women in the United States in 1996.
Lighter blues may be on the horizon, says Strutz of the Lee Co. And back-to-school business may be hot in the wide-legged-pant department.
And certainly denim will continue to evolve.
High-tech fibers in denimlike looks will get better. Colors will come and go.
People may buy less denim, but chances are good they’ll buy it and wear it.