Blue Jeans
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Basic Information

Blue Jeans are not as new and modern as you might expect. Levi Strauss & Co likes to give the impression that they invented blue jeans in 1873 in The Old West, but that’s kind of misleading. Their 1873 patent was not for the jeans themselves, but for those little metal rivets they use to reinforce the pockets.

Blue jeans are made of denim, a cotton-derived material that was invented during the Renaissance in the region of Nimes, France. Shortly after its creation, the denim made it’s way to Genoa, Italy, where Indigo dye was used to color sailor’s uniform pants. Serge de Nimes, bleu de Gênes (in other words, the fabric of Nimes, dyed the blue of Genoa) were around for a good long while before Levi’s. The phrase “blue jeans” can be found in print in English going back to 1795, and as we mention on our 'Master of blue jeans' holds key to fashion riddle page, they appear depicted in paintings that date back to 1655. Dungaree, a related textile of the same cotton fiber as denim, but a different weave, and goes back to at least 1605 in India, and possibly hundreds of years earlier. Confusingly dungarees is also the English name for what the Americans call overalls (in England, that name is used for what is also called a boilersuit) - presumably due to the traditional material of manufacture - and indeed the initial Levi-Strauss patent described their product as "waist-overalls", implying the discarding of the bib portion.

The most common denim style uses blue-dyed warp threads and white weft threads. This combination of fiber colors is what causes the fading patterns that well-worn blue jeans develop, and is why the inner surfaces of your jeans are usually a lighter color than the outside. It’s also why “distressed” jeans are a thing, as designers sell jeans that have been washed with acid, sand-blasted, or intentionally torn at the factory. Sometimes the methods for distressing jeans in bulk has lead to serious health hazards for the workers of the factories where they are made.

Blue jeans tend to be sturdy and rugged, good for work or play. Originally worn by those with jobs that are hard on the clothing, such as cowboys, sailors and factory workers, they eventually became popular casual wear as well. Blue jeans owe their popularity to not just to Levi & Strauss, but also to Hollywood. They were worn extensively the The Western genre, and notably worn by Marlon Brando and James Dean in The Wild One and Rebel Without A Cause. In the 1950s (certainly in the UK), blue jeans (and a leather jacket) were the core uniform of the Rocker gang culture - very distinct from the designer suits and parkas of the Mods.

Starting in 1957, “jeans fever” struck the Soviet Union, resulting in black market jeans smuggled into the USSR, and the clandestine production of counterfeit Levi’s. During the right time and place, blue jeans can be a very expensive and in-demand commodity.

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Game and Story Use

  • Bootlegging bait. A criminal ring might smuggle blue jeans across the border into a conservative and controlling nation. The KGB vs pants-smugglers.
    • For those who like their irony, the USSR coming down on blue jeans is something of a rich vein - although seen as quintessentially American, they were also, arguably, truly proletarian in the same way as the boilersuits and workmen's overalls fashionable with 1930s communist militants, denim trousers were (as noted above) labourer's clothing, made fashionable by the cultural and economic elevation of the American working class after WW2. "Distressing" jeans likewise was a way of shortcutting the process whereby years of hard use shaped and faded a pair around their owner.
      • That could, of course, be why the communists disliked them - at least partially as a symptom of the working class being empowered by a force other than Marxist dialectic.
    • "Tailor" was often code for "prostitute". What starts out looking like a minor blue-jeans smuggling operation not worth the PC's/detectives time, could turn out to be a front for human trafficking.
      • Given that very few people are going to want to be smuggled into a totalitarian state, this could be a two way trade - free world goods in one direction, naïve teenagers in the other. Also a nasty, but historically quite common, surprise for anyone trying to escape from the totalitarian regime. Or, indeed, for the traffickers if they misunderstand the significance of someone being smuggled for some intelligence agency.
      • Of course, based on historical precedent, the smugglers might well be an intelligence agency (or at least be controlled by them).
  • A connecticut yankee or fish out of temporal water might find his modern clothing fits in better in the past than he expected, making time travel a little easier.
    • Maybe smuggling blue jeans into the distant past is a way for a small-time time-traveler to strike it rich without greatly skewing the march of history.
    • Of course, before about 1960, your multi hundred dollar designer-distressed Levis will just be regarded as shabby workwear and get you barred from the very sort of place they would usher you into in the modern day.
  • In a fantasy setting, it would make sense for magic blue jeans to be a thing. Durable work clothes need a little something extra in a world with grease spells and breath weapons.
  • All of this about illicit clothing brings the idea of sumptuary laws to mind - parallels could easily be drawn with other forms of clothing crossing caste boundaries.
  • A factory where distressed jeans are made could have many of the same chemical dangers as those found in a tannery. So it might be an interesting villain lair or location for a fight scene.
    • Or, as a bit of characterization or backstory, someone might have pulmonary silicosis caused by years of operating the sand-blaster in a jeans factory.
    • A killer might leave no fingerprints, as their finger tips were burned by slow gradual exposure to acids and dyes via decades at their day job.
    • Of course, back in the 70s and 80s you had to distress your own jeans… which was normally a good way to get into an argument with your parents and/or wreck the washing machine with gravel.
  • For anyone who has been living under a rock (also aliens, time travellers and anyone else unfamiliar with the word around the turn of the 21st century) denim is also used for a variety of other clothing including jackets, shirts and (US style) overalls. Jeans, as well as being "distressed" are also often cut down into shorter trousers, especially by women and/or to convert a pair of trousers that has worn out at the knee. Denim has also been produced in other colours, but blue remains the most popular. Fashion status has varied over time and many clichés have arisen from their use.
    • For example, denim (US Style) overalls are often considered "redneck wear" in the US, whilst in the UK they tend to be associated with late 20th century lesbians.
    • Denim jackets remain relatively common workwear in the US, in the UK they were very popular in the 1980s and have never quite recovered from that…
  • Despite their origins, jeans, or at least modern ones, tend to be indifferent workwear at best - not nearly as tough as their ancestors (but then who is…) they are also slow drying once wet, absorb a lot of water and tend to chafe until dry. Of course, those brought from workwear suppliers may well be a better bet.
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