The History of Denim Workwear

The history of fashion is more than the elaborate garments of lords and ladies, or the high fashion on runways and magazines. In fact, the story of what everyday people wore is often far more interesting and revealing.

Workwear refers to clothing worn at work, specifically in manual labour jobs. The most infamous type is denim workwear, chosen for its unique qualities and repairable nature to withstand many hard days at work. From these humble beginnings, denim jeans have become a staple of the modern wardrobe; they transcend typical restrictions of age, gender and class.

The word ‘denim’ is a contraction of ‘serge de Nimes’. While a similar fabric called ‘dungaree’ had been produced in India for centuries, denim as we know it today is specifically a type of serge fabric developed in Nimes, France. Indigo and white threads are woven in a diagonal, twill weave, creating a cotton fabric that is simultaneously durable and breathable.

Denim’s significance as workwear emerged significantly in America when Levi Strauss moved to San Francisco during the Gold Rush of 1853. Western America’s explosion of industry left an untapped market; gold miners, cowboys, and other labourers required quality workwear.

In 1873, Levi Strauss & Co patented copper rivets on blue denim trousers, known at the time as ‘waist overalls’. These rivets were placed in key points of stress, resulting in a strong and durable piece of workwear that would later become known by their modern term, ‘jeans’. The practicality of this garment made it exceptionally popular among the working West, most famously with cowboys.

Denim waist overalls remained strictly practical, with other brands such as Lee and Wrangler forming to provide workwear in the early 20th century. However, the demographic for these companies began to change, due to the devastating economic effects of the Great Depression.

With many manual labourers left without stable employment (and without the need to buy workwear), nostalgia began to grow. It’s only natural that people look to their past for guidance during turbulent times. For the working American people, their lost golden age was the ‘Wild West’ era, from 1865-1895. These working men from before were made the heroes of legend, as impoverished people became fascinated by that short-lived era of prosperity.

The iconography of the Wild West became immortalised in Hollywood Westerns, and ‘dude ranches’. Ranches made obsolete by economic depression were repurposed as tourist attractions, where a customer could experience cowboy life complete with old legends, horseback riding, and the ‘costume’ of the cowboy. For the first time since their conception, denim overalls were being used as a costume for tourists and film stars as they emulated a bygone era. This shift was instrumental, as workwear evolved beyond mere practicality. This shift was instrumental, as workwear evolved beyond mere practicality.

World War Two aided the globalisation of denim waist overalls. Even years after, officers posted overseas would take their denim garments and use them as leisurewear, to wear off-duty. This meant that Americans were deliberately recognisable to one another, and jeans became a cultural signifier.

With denim workwear established as a shorthand for America’s perceived ‘golden age’, jeans finally caught the eye of the youth thanks to cultural icons of the 1950s. In film, jeans were a useful costume design choice; their roots in workwear connoted the freedom and rebellion of Old America, which many felt had been drowned out by the suburban sprawl of post-war society. Furthermore, jeans were still very much seen as the garment of hardworking men.

Denim Workwear

James Dean’s character in ‘Rebel Without A Cause’ stood distinct from the rest of the cast, particularly his office worker father, with his casual denim workwear. This character rebelled from suburbia and embraced Old American freedom, right down to the clothes he wore. Films with similar themes of freedom continued to use jeans to represent rebellion, on stars such as Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe.

The younger generation was enamoured with such films, and imitated their cultural icons. Due to a lack of variety in visual media, film held a dramatic influence over fashion; so, these young, attractive, fashionable stars were idolised and imitated by both men and women. The popularity of jeans only skyrocketed as schools and authoritarian bodies began to ban them, deeming them ‘too casual’, and therefore ironically all the more appealing to the young and rebellious.

Never had jeans been so popular, and this popularity only snowballed as denim companies took advantage of the interest and began to innovate. Jeans have the capacity to always feel new for each generation, with the bell-bottoms of the 60s, acid wash of the 80s, low-rise of the 2000s, and so forth into the exciting future of denim styles. Jeans have evolved beyond being merely workwear, while still maintaining the qualities that originally made them so appealing; by investing in jeans as leisurewear, a customer can feel assured that the product is durable yet breathable, perfect for the fast-paced variety of modern life.


Denim jeans will always remain a workwear staple, but their wide appeal across all of fashion culture is truly revolutionary.

Author: Emma Barclay