Originally created as a utility fabric, denim has now become a ubiquitous feature in pretty much everyone’s wardrobe. Originating from Nimes, France, it has been used in the US since the mid 19th century, with the first pair of ‘jeans’ designed in 1871 by Jacob W Davis, who later moved production to his fabric supplier, Levi Strauss & Co. These were eventually named the 501, and the rest is history.
From Marlon Brando’s classic turn ups in ‘The Wild One’, via distressed, acid washed, boot cuts and flares, to Kate Moss’ skinny jean culture and the resurgence of 80s mom jeans, denim has become an egalitarian symbol and a constant reflection of casual Western culture. It’s not surprising that hundreds of brands have been spawned from that first pair of jeans, and that people like Erik Torstensson – the subject of this week’s WTF profile — were inspired enough to create their own unique variation of this historical evolution in fashion.
Here we share some of denim’s most memorable sartorial moments.
Marlon Brando as Johnny Strabler in 1953 movie ‘The Wild One’, whose look brought out the rebellious nature in teenagers all across America and encouraged the casual wearing of jeans nationwide. With no credited costume designer on the film, apparently it was Brando himself who picked items from his own wardrobe to get into character.
Brando’s look was followed closely by James Dean as Jim Stark in ‘Rebel Without A Cause’ in 1955, with this iconic outfit from costume designer Moss Mabry that became similarly influential within America’s counterculture in the 50s, and still resonates decades later.
Elvis Presley rocks a denim jacket and jeans whilst signing autographs around the release of Jailhouse Rock in 1957.
Marilyn Monroe doing double-denim long before Britney Spears, photographed behind the scenes whilst filming John Huston’s ‘The Misfits’ in 1961, her last feature film release, dressed by costumier Jean Louis.
Martin Luther King and fellow activist Ralph David Abernathy wearing denim whilst on the Good Friday March, April 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, where they were arrested. Historically, this produced King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ letter. For many African Americans, denim was a more painful reminder of the old sharecropper uniforms. James Brown, for instance, refused to ever wear jeans, and forbade any of his band members to wear denim. It thus became a symbol for the black freedom struggle when worn during the fights for civil rights era.
Paul Newman in the classic Lee ’Storm Rider’ denim jacket, with Melvyn Douglas wearing the traditional ‘chore’ jacket, whilst filming ‘Hud’ in 1963, with the legendary Edith Head in charge of design.
George Harrison in 1965 wearing chambray and scruffed up denim, a switch up from the usual smartly suited uniform of The Beatles.
The always cool Steve McQueen hamming it up in classic denim, whilst filming ‘Baby The Rain Must Fall’ in 1965.
John Lennon in top-to-toe denim hanging out with a more conservatively dressed Mick Jagger in 1968.
A denim clad Steve McQueen and Jacqueline Bisset in 1968’s iconic ‘Bullitt’, riding a Triumph Bonneville through the hills of San Francisco, with looks chosen by designer Theadora Van Runkle.
Cool as a cucumber, actor Martin Sheen in Terence Malick’s classic ‘Badlands’ in 1973, wearing a Levi’s Type II jacket and jeans, costume design by Rosanna Norton.
Who can forget these two denim-lead album covers. 1971’s ‘Sticky Fingers’ by The Rolling Stones, designed by Craig Braun and using a polaroid by Andy Warhol. And ‘Born In The USA’ by Bruce Springsteen from 1984, photographed by Annie Leibovitz. “We took a lot of different types of pictures, and in the end, the picture of my ass looked better than the picture of my face, so that’s what went on the cover.”
Farrah Fawcett could make anything look appealing in 1974, here skating in neatly hemmed flares.
A 1976 Robert Redford looking as cool as only Robert Redford could in stylishly tailored 70’s denim, around the time of filming ‘All The President’s Men’.
Debby Harry adds her unique punked up edge to blue jeans, in the early days of Blondie on stage in 1978.
A fifteen year old Brooke Shields set a new standard for denim as chic, in her controversial 1980 Calvin Klein ads, photographed by Richard Avedon. “Do you know what comes between me and my Calvin’s? Nothing.”
Musician Sade Adu adding her own, and much replicated, stylish take on the blues in 1980, photographed by David Montgomery.
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 ‘The Outsiders’ starred a bunch of charismatic upstarts in greasy denim – costumed by Marjorie Bowers – who all went on to make their individual marks on Hollywood: L to R, Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, C. Thomas Howell, Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze and Tom Cruise.
Madonna tearing up the rule book as usual in 1988 in an untypically laid back look.
As Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis upended sexism in Hollywood as dual leading ladies in 1991’s ‘Thelma & Louise’, they happened to take charge in faded mom jeans, costumed by designer Elizabeth McBride.
No denim story would be complete without Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake, appearing together on the 2001 American Music Awards red carpet, and setting new highs — or lows, depending on your taste level — for very consciously co-ordinated coupling.
Portuguese soccer legend Cristiano Ronaldo, with his son, Cristiano Junior, in a 2017 denim campaign for his own CR7 brand.
Brad Pitt channels Robert Redford and every other cool 70s dude we know in Quentin Tarantino’s 2019 ‘Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’, playing our favorite stuntman Cliff Booth, and costumed by Arianne Phillips.
Manchester United and England star soccer player and activist Marcus Rashford poses for Levi’s ‘Buy Better, Wear Longer’ denim campaign in 2021, photographed by Micaiah Carter.