Denim Through the Decades

How denim has been a symbol of freedom, independence and sensuality

denim through the decades

Words: Afrika Lethabo Bogatsu | Illustrations: Jason Basson

It’s almost hard to believe that less than a hundred years ago, which really isn’t a long time if you think about it, the practical functionality of jeans was limited to men. While men had the pleasure of wearing denim jeans from 1873, the privilege, much like the right to vote was only extended to women much later. It was only in 1934, that Levi’s Strauss created a jean exclusively for women, specifically women who worked on farm ranches in the wild and somewhat progressive west. Before that women would wear their husband’s or brothers jeans. Fast forward to now, women (with exceptions) can vote, drive and fill out a pair of jeans, maybe even better than our male counterparts.

Denim has become a staple in everyone’s closet, from Mid-western cowgirls to World War 2 factory workers like Rosie the Riveter. Decade after decade, denim has proven itself to be more than just a hard-wearing cotton twill fabric, but rather a symbol.

We look at the symbolism behind three popular jean silhouettes and the iconic women who popularised them.

The Mom Jeans

Marilyn Monroe

The most common image associated with the 50s is women dressed in pearls, blouses, full skirts and A-line dresses in bright and cheerful colours and prints, making sure their suburban homes were pristine, children well-behaved and husbands fed and happy. The 50s and early 60s were a fashionable time. While we loved the looks served by Betty Draper on Mad Men, the social issues of the time, specifically the role of women in society left much to be desired. A woman’s role was limited to that of a caring mother and obedient wife.

But there was something else outside the confines of Suzy Homemaker's white picket fence, there were women divorcing the idea that they could only be trophy wives or glorified maids. Women were rejecting conformity and challenging the system.

Perhaps the growing popularity rock and roll – the sound of rebellion and no f*cks to give, had something to do with it. With rock and roll came Greaser culture and rockabilly style – think leather biker jackets, Converse Chuck Taylors and straight leg Levi’s jeans. While motorcycle gangs were quite the boys club, the culture still inspired more and more women to break away from conventions and embracing their inner rebels and live on the edgier side of life. You could now see women tinkering away under the hood of a hotrod, getting their hands dirty and wiping them clean on a pair of heavy duty denims.

One of these women, believe it or not was Marilyn Monroe. While it’s hard to imagine the blonde bombshell changing a tyre, chopping wood or doing any sort of manual labour. She sure did look the part. While starring in the films like Clash by Night, River of No Return and The Misfits, we see her rocking a pair of dependable blues. They were high-waisted, dark wash and slightly stiff. An interesting transition from the feminine dresses she was known for at the time. She exuded an effortless confidence and cool comfort while still looking strong enough to handle her own just like her male counterparts.

The Flare

Pam Grier

The wide-leg silhouette was all the rage in the late 60’s and 70’s. It was loved by women because it reflected the times, it felt like freedom. Either sitting slightly low on the hips or just above the waist, tapered around the thigh and then flared freely at the leg, wide leg jeans had the ability to make one feel taller and more confident, like you could take on the world. One such woman, was Pam Grier. Loved and known as the ultimate bad-ass heroine, she kicked down doors and took names, sometimes shooting first then asking questions later. She was strong yet fiercely feminine, unafraid to take a stand in her wide-leg jeans.

Wide-leg jeans are all about drama, you can’t quite but feel like wanting to drop kick someone when wearing them.

The Sexy Skinny


"You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing." You might be a little too young to remember these iconic words or the uni-browed bombshell who uttered them, but almost 40 years after the infamous Calvin Klein campaign, skinny jeans still purr easy sex appeal. While 15-year-old Brooke Shields was inappropriately young to be selling sex in the form of jeans, we can appreciate the ad campaign and others like it during the naughty 90s. The naughties were all about owning one's sexuality. This was a change catapulted by the fashion industry after the height of the HIV/AIDS outbreak in the 80s where many young people were shamed and scared into denying their sexuality. 

The 90s are back in fashion but as trends come and go we think the skinny is here to stay. What makes this figure-hugging, curve loving silhouette a timeless favourite is its ability to make you feel sexy. The best skinny fits like a second skin.

Regardless of your body type, the skinny encourages you to embrace your lovely lady lumps.

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