Venom in Denim

I have something in common with the prime ministers, presidents and corporate tycoons of the world. Is it my gold-plated Rolls-Royce bedazzled in hulking 24-carat diamonds? My intricate knowledge of the world’s most secretive nuclear arsenals? The fact that I can call up the British prime minister for a spot o’ tea n’ crumpets? Well, I’m working on those … but in the meantime, the closest I am to that Rolls-Royce is when I stud my Toyota with rhinestones.

Rather, the answer is surprisingly simple and seemingly mundane. I like wearing jeans.

Don’t believe me? Consider this: in attending a July dinner with President Barack Obama, Russian Prime Minister Demetri Medvedev wore a pair of dark straight jeans to complement his button-up shirt and pricey leather-soled shoes. Even the oft-ridiculed “mom jeans” that Obama wore while throwing the first pitch of the 2009 MLB All-Star Game is a testament to the popularity of jeans as a fashion staple amongst the prominent and well-to-do.

As reporter Christina Binkley notes in her Wall Street Journal article, “The Relentless Rise of Power Jeans,” “Power jeans are increasingly common in high-ranking business and political circles … a legitimate part of the global power-dress lexicon, worn [when] the wearers want to signal they’re serious — but not fussy — and innovative.”

It turns out that this fashion trend stems from Apple Executive Steve Jobs’ wardrobe of black turtlenecks and dark jeans. The outfit symbolized innovation during Apple’s rise in the nineties; naturally, the rich and powerful have begun emulating this sartorial touch in trying to attain some of Jobs’ success for themselves.

Steve Jobs as fashion trailblazer — who would’ve thought?

This emerging trend also has surprising implications for young professionals, particularly at emerging companies aimed at youth. As Andrew Dumont, Vice President of Marketing at text-messaging company Tatango, comments, “When someone shows up to an interview or meeting in anything other than jeans, it shows inexperience and a lack of confidence.”

But don’t be so quick to break out the denim for your next interview. New York Career Adviser Jonscott Turco also clarifies that while jeans are a “no-brainer” in the media, manufacturing and creative industries, formalwear still reigns in financial services and law firms.

And despite their evolution into status symbols and fashion statements, jeans have humble origins.

Considering all the fuss surrounding Italian designer jeans, it’s fitting that jeans were first sewn in Italy. In fact, the word “jeans” is derived from “bleu de Gênes,” French for “blue of Genoa” (Genoa is a Northern Italian seaport). Though jeans fabric, or denim, originated separately from both the French town Nimes and India, jeans were popularized during the 16th century when they were commissioned for the Genoese Navy. Because jeans could be worn damp or dry, and could be rolled up to wear while deck-swabbing, they were perfect as naval attire.

Jeans transitioned into fame as an American icon starting with German merchant Levi Strauss’ arrival in San Francisco during the 19th century Gold Rush. Initially intending to sell dry goods to miners, Strauss noticed a greater demand for durable pants and crafted the canvas material he had brought into waist overalls. He then substituted the canvas for denim when miners complained of chafing due to the canvas pants.

From the time of their mid-1800s American reincarnation to the 1950s, jeans remained primarily used as work attire. During World War II, the hardy trousers were incorporated into the uniforms of factory workers. Women’s jeans differed from men’s in that they featured the zipper down the right side, though by the sixties all jeans had a front zipper.

Similarly, before the coveralls and utilities uniform utilized today, the U.S. Navy used boot-cut jeans as part of its official working uniform. Likely inspired by their usage by past European sailors, Navy jeans were worn in the place of more traditional maritime uniforms in order to preserve the latter for wear during ceremonial occasions.

It wasn’t long before jeans began their ascent from work attire to fashion. Though jeans had become popularized by their appearance in 1930s cowboy movies — thus affiliating them with the American Wild West — it was in the 1950s that they made a quantum leap into the American imagination.

In the 1955 movie “Rebel Without a Cause,” actor James Dean wore jeans while portraying teenage rebel Jim Stark. Stark’s image as the disrespectful, curfew-breaking hooligan led horrified parents to disapprove of jeans as a symbol of delinquency and youth rebellion. In fact, some adults went so far as to ban jeans from establishments such as schools, diners, and theaters. Naturally, jeans became extremely popular among teenagers.

However, in the 1960s and 1970s, jeans gradually became more acceptable to wear, entering mainstream fashion as informal wear. The rest, as they say, is history. From ankle to baggy to bell bottom, or low-rise to skinny to straight, jeans permeate our culture and lifestyle in every form, fit, and shape imaginable. There isn’t a single American who hasn’t worn a pair of jeans — the president and I have that in common!

As famed fashion designer Yves St. Laurent once remarked, “I have often said that I wish I had invented blue jeans: the most spectacular, the most practical, the most relaxed and nonchalant. They have expression, modesty, sex appeal, simplicity — all I hope for in my clothes.”

Jeans have become the unofficial uniform of a young generation. Whether you’re rocking designer jeans or a pair of old-fashioned Levi Strauss, your style is right on the money.