This Iconic Garment Wasn't Actually Invented in America's Wild West

Popular blue jean lore omits those who taught Americans how to dye hard-wearing cotton trousers: enslaved people from West Africa.

jeans crowley company
Library of Congress; The Crowley Company

It's said that at any given moment, half of the world's population is wearing blue jeans. The estimation probably isn't far off. The garment, originally known as a work pant, is now everywhere, and they suit everyone. "This one garment can be both universal and individual at the same time," fashion historian Emma McClendon says in PBS's documentary, Riveted: The History of Jeans. "There’s nothing like that in the history of clothing."

But the history of blue jeans has been edited to better suit its biggest producers, Levi's and Wrangler, a documentary by PBS, reveals. While dry good supplier Levi Strauss and tailor Jacob Davis are credited with mainstreaming denim pants with reinforced stress points and pockets, there are people both before and after them that deserve credit for creating jeans as we know them.

Sure, cowboys and those working in America's Wild West served as incredible advertisers for these newly American bottoms, but "denim was changing and so was America," McClendon continues. "That image of someone clad in denim at the turn of the 20th century is inevitably, you know, romanticized. And the reality is that people of all different ages, races, and genders were wearing denim during this time."

pbs jeans

Not only was imagery of those who wore jeans whitewashed, but the history of production was, too: from who taught American hows to cultivate and use indigo to who exactly even invented coarse, blue cotton pants in the first place. Indigo can be traced back to Dungri, India, (carried on colloquially through dungarees), where workers as far back as the 17th century wore tough blue pants dyed with indigo; Genoans (where the word jeans derives from) in Italy made waxed work pants; and in Nimes, France, indigo-dyed cloth was called "de Nimes" (the root of the word denim).

The knowledge to grow indigo came from enslaved people.

In Africa, indigo was used as well, and when many West Africans were taken captive and relocated against their will to America, they brought the trade with them, passing the knowledge to white, slave-owning families across the south. And, like this country has with many other popular products, the knowledge of these captive peoples' contributions was written over. The US' history curriculum celebrates the daughter of a colonial governor, Eliza Lucas, for cultivating indigo and kickstarting its production as a cash crop in South Carolina.

"Eliza Lucas was probably one of the most well-known producers of indigo in colonial America," historian Daina Berry says in the 59-minute video. "But Eliza's hands weren't blue. She didn't get her hands dirty with the indigo crop. The knowledge to grow indigo came from enslaved people."

More fascinating, yet plenty harrowing, reportage from this PBS documentary reveals that enslaved Africans were not only preparing the indigo dye, but obviously picking the cotton needed to make blue jeans, too. They'd pick the crop, it would be shipped north to mills in Union states and returned to the south as a wearable garment. And many, many enslaved people wore jeans. (They were inappropriately called "Negro Cloths" for half of the 18th century.) Runaway slave ads archived in a database called Freedom on the Move present vivid descriptions of these individuals, and what they were wearing when they were last seen.

freedom on the move
Freedom on the Move

"You have advertisements that have very, very, very detailed information about enslaved people. And enslaved people were, in fact, wearing jeans," Berry continues.

One such ad in the Weekly Standard for one self-liberating Sampson Dew, states he was last seen wearing a "green coat and blue pantaloons." Another, for Henry, says he was spotted in a "blue cottonade pantaloons." As you can tell, Levi, Wrangler and Lee represent the tip of an industrial iceberg that stretches as far back as 17th century India. (For context, Strauss and Davis are credited with creating jeans on May 20, 1873, but waist overalls, as they were called, were around for decades prior.)

In America, the story begins with the enslaved people of Africa. They carried with them the intelligence to turn a raw green leaf into an oxidized vat of blue dye. They picked and produced the cotton to make the damn things. They wore jeans long before cowboys and rock stars did, and this documentary strives to hammer home contributions by captive people we've long overlooked in favor of stories fashioned by brands themselves in order to sell more product.

"Indigo really encapsulates this problem of how do we begin to tell the story of captive people and how we document their contributions in America, and to the denim history in particular," author Catherine Mckinley says early on in the documentary.

Riveted: The History of Jeans
Written, Produced And Directed:
Michael Bicks and Anna Lee Strachan for PBS

Runtime: 52:39


Advertisement - Continue Reading Below