Editor's Note, August 31, 2021: A denim historian at Levi's offered further insights into the origins of black denim, and the jeans Elvis wore in JailHouse Rock. "Since the turn of the century, black denim jeans have been available for Levi’s customers. As early as 1903, black denim (overalls) appeared in Levi’s catalog. Retail customers could get 8 oz. or 9 oz. copper-riveted black denim overalls, Lot 531 or Lot 225, for as low as $7.00 per dozen. We can’t confirm Elvis’s jeans from JailHouse Rock are Levi’s but they inspired our Type 1 jeans that launched in 2003."
Levi's (allegedly) launched a line of black jeans — a departure from the black overalls the brand had been selling since 1903 — in 1957 in part because of Elvis Presley's new movie, Jailhouse Rock, wherein he wears... you guessed it... black jeans. They called them the Elvis Presley Jeans. Oh, wow, what a creative title, corporate marketers. Simplicity aside, they marked a pivotal moment for denim. In the years prior, rebellious youths began coopting the workwear aesthetic, slowly transforming jeans from the functional, working-class pant of choice to something more fashion-forward — and informal.
Partly due to Elvis' magnetism, partly because they were a
dark stark departure from blue denim, black jeans were an instant hit. “Black jeans became the rage of the season," style historian James Sullivan wrote in his book, Jeans: A Cultural History of an American Icon. They moved fast through the fashionable circles, appearing on everyone from James Dean and Marlon Brando, and moved on to the masses; every troubled teen, high-school bully, and rock band loved black jeans, pairing them with leather jackets and loafers or white tees and Chuck Taylors.
For denim brands, uniforming hardworking American men was a far cry from outfitting greasers — especially when the jeans of choice amongst the latter crowd were typically ultra-dark or heavily distressed. As such, all of the major denim manufacturers banded together against, well, teens, who they felt were tarnishing the garment's image.
"In 1956, the nation’s top blue jeans manufacturers formed the national Denim Council 'to put schoolchildren back in blue jeans through a concerted national public relations, advertising, and promotional effort.' First the council targeted teens, but its promotional efforts were unsuccessful. The manufacturers soon realized that the problem was not with the teens but with the parents, administrators, teachers, and school boards. It was the adults who felt threatened by a fashion trend that seemed to promote disrespect through casualness," Penn State University's Business of Mass Media Department details in Public Relations and Framing the Message.
Narcs! Adults worried about what kids were wearing tried to kill off jeans — specifically the kinds the cool kids were wearing (aka black ones). But clearly they failed. Be like the cool kids and buy a pair of black jeans.
Well, well, well, if it isn't the jean that started it all. 501s are an irrefutable classic, the kind of garment that goes down in history books for defining how humans dress. It's hard to imagine a world without them. And even though these aren't blue, they're just as good — maybe even better.
Everlane's black jeans are cut from a mix of organic cotton and performance fabrics. As such, there's some stretch. But, they're a pretty simple, straight-fitting jean that'll last through typical wear.
Love a jean with some stretch? Uniqlo's Stretch Selvedge jeans certainly have it. They're slim-fitting so you'll really feel them give, but they aren't garter-like — meaning you can still breathe and bend and bike and whatever else it is you do.
Try Tellason's sanforized Selvedge jeans, which were designed from top to bottom by motorcyclist and writer Tod Blubaugh — hence the name. They're unwashed, raw, unworn, and slim-straight fitting. Mid-rise and midweight, each is cut and sewn in San Francisco.
Made from raw 11 oz Candiani Mills denim (73-percent cotton, 27-percent elastomultiester), Shockoe Atelier's Standard Black Selvedge Jeans are truly tonal. The copper rivets are coated black; the stitching is black, too. But, with wear and tear these will totally fade, making them uniquely your own.
Raleigh Denim's Graham Jeans are cut from 14 oz Vidalia Mills denim, with a button fly, the brand's signature red chainstitch hem, half-lined back pockets, and maker-signed front ones. Each pair's made in the US, and its own work of art upon arrival.
Britain-based brand Dawson Denim has been making Selvedge English workwear since 2012. This pair of 14 0z black on black denim jeans is no exception. Finished with copper rivets, these are reinforced at stress points and tapered through the leg.
Lucky Brand's 363 jeans come embedded with "advanced stretch," a material development made possible by combining cotton, elastane and elasterell-p. As such, these have a bit give but the right amount of rigidity, too.
These jeans by Carhartt's European cousin, Carhartt WIP, are tapered through the leg with a relatively regular fit. Cut from 100-percent organic cotton, they're kinder on the environment, albeit finished with a leather logo patch.
BDG's vintage black jeans come pre-washed to a '90s sitcom dad shade, which is to say slightly faded yet far from distressed. They fit rather loose through the legs, have a higher waist and wider leg openings.
Madewell's Slim Flex Jeans are one of the brand's best-selling garments. These aren't rockstar skinny nor are they too loose, situating them somewhere between too big and too tight. Perfect, right? The construction accounts for 2-percent spandex, lending stretch and resiliency.
Companion constructs their black jeans from 15oz Japanese black x black selvedge denim. The hue's rich, and the fabric hardy, and every pair is manufactured by two pairs of hands in a factory outside of Barcelona.