Growing up my dad wore jeans every day - in fact, he still does. Jeans are his uniform. He has his weekend work jeans, his work jeans and his going out jeans, all with different levels of wear. It is well known in our family that Hunter McCaig only wears jeans. I watched my dad wear this garment until they would fall apart, then my step-mom would stitch them back up and he would wear them again. It instilled in my mind how durable jeans can be and when they do get holes, you patch them up and wear them again. I saw how jeans would stay in his closet for years, which is what we should expect from our clothing.
As I started thrifting, jeans were the garment that helped me see how women were being short changed by the fast fashion industry. When I would go second-hand hunting for jeans, I was always disappointed by the women’s section. These jeans were made from thin, spandex fabric that were always ill fitting, and were designed to fall apart at the seams. When I would head to the men’s section, I found beautiful jeans, made with strong durable cotton twill, with FULL sized pockets. Rather than settle for the fast fashion brands I would shop in the men’s section and I learned how to alter them to fit my waist, again this garment showed me how durable and long lasting it could be, if designed with thought.
Jeans have a long history that span the globe; they speak to people of any age, race, size or background. Most humans can attest to at least owning one pair of jeans in their lifetime. Although this garment is often seen as humble, fashionable and even democratic, its history is shrouded in capitalism. Despite the fact that the first jean style was patented in 1873, its original components have been around for centuries and are deeply rooted in the darkest part of our worlds history; slavery.
Indigo is a part of our daily lives, it is in all of our wardrobes, but before it was produced in abundance by enslaved people, the Indigofera Tinctoria plant was used to dye the clothing of royalty and help show their status. It was first grown in Charleston in the 1700’s, when landowners discovered it would grow in areas not suitable for rice, it also acted as a rotation crop in between rice plantings, allowing the crop year to be extended by getting more use out of their land and enslaved. “Slavery wasn’t even legal in Georgia until indigo became the main export in South Carolina, the [British] governors in Georgia decided to legalize slavery to keep the indigo industry going.”1 Profit over human life or environmental cost is the basis for any capitalist endeavour, no more so documented than during America Slavery. The indigo industry was often run completely by enslaved people because of their knowledge of how to grow and harvest the plant, yet their lives were traded for this currency, “it was used literally as currency and they were trading one length of cotton in exchange for one human body.”2 3
Cotton is a part of our daily lives, it is in all of our wardrobes, sound familiar? While you might not have known the links between indigo production and slavery, the tie between cotton and slavery are well documented. Although cotton has been grown for 7000+ years, it was the trading of this product that pushed its growth to America in the 15th century, subsequently cotton replaced indigo as the key crop in America’ South by the 1800’s. “By 1787 Delegates at the Constitutional Convention were split on the question of human bondage and man’s inhumanity to man, but not its economic necessity. At the time, there were nearly 700,000 enslaved people living in the US, worth an estimated $210 million in today’s dollars.”4 Karl Marx’s brutal, but accurate quote “without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry” truly captures how human life can be viewed as a commodity, just like machinery.3 We may think that that era is done, that our jeans are no longer made by enslaved people, but that is not true. With the design of jeans and there growth in pop culture, fast fashion jumped on this bandwagon and continues to pump out more styles than we even want.
They were worn by cowboys and miners who needed sturdy and durable workwear. These were very uncomfortable and stiff and never worn on the streets.
This is where jeans blew up and became a pop culture phenomenon, when James Dean wore blue jeans, a white tee and a leather jacket in Rebel Without a Cause, 1955. More and more actors began sporting this uniform, causing public schools to ban jeans in America for being too provocative.
We all know this era was all about free love and the rise of youth culture. Blue jeans were fully embraced and seen as a form of creative expression, extra points if you personalized your jeans.
At the start of this decade, my favourite icon Gloria Steinem, leader and spokeswoman for the American feminist movement and women’s lib organizer, wore blue jeans as a way to demonstrate gender equality. By the end of the 70’s high fashion started to take notice and in 1976 Calvin Klein was the first designer to show blue jeans on the runway.
Brook Shields was featured in a campaign with the tagline, ‘Nothing can come between me and my Calvin’s’ thrusting jeans into the forefront in the fashion world and putting them in every designer's collection. **Jeans have always had a dark history, but here is when they were thrust into a lot of companies with purely capitalistic ideals.
With the rise of grunge, jeans became even more casual rather than something you could dress up. Wide legs, carpenter jeans and overalls became very popular.
This is where jeans styles completely blew up and changed a lot for women. Companies needed new styles monthly to sell to the next generation of teens. Low rise, bedazzled, lace up, back pockets disappearing, capris cut, more wash options, colourful options and jeggings took over. It wasn’t that we needed all these options or even liked them, but fast fashion started pumping out more and more styles to drive our consumerism.
This time was heavily influenced by past decades styles. As far as production it was much the same as the 2000’s, any and every design option was thrown at us to keep us buying the most beloved staple in most of our wardrobes.
All this brings me back to my story.
Jeans are one of my favourite designs in fashion, whether styled with a tee or dressed up with a blazer, I love them just like many of you do. The origin story of jeans and the materials that make them has a dark history, but there are brands that are working to make jeans that you can be proud to wear. Personally, I wear only thrifted jeans, that is what my budget can afford and I tend to prefer older styles. The designer in me has loved adding upcycled Denim Projects to the Copious Brand and I will continue to do my part in upcycling the denim that is currently available. Upcycling is a true passion, literally it is time consuming and labour intensive, each Hunter Jean Jacket is made with love and a deep desire to create pieces my client can be proud to wear.
I would like to note that I did not address the environmental impact of making even one pair of jeans, which is HUGE. I will be addressing this in my Candid Copious LIVE. You can join in on Instagram on Tuesday September 14th @ 7pm.
Rewatch Candid Copious LIVELocally or Fair Trade Made Jeans: