Blue jeans celebrate 150th anniversary It's hard to imagine a piece of clothing that's more wrapped up in American history and mythology than blue jeans. They were invented 150 years ago.

Durable and enduring, blue jeans turn 150

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Blue jeans turn 150 years old this weekend. And I'm not talking about that old pair you have at the bottom of your dresser. In honor of the big birthday, NPR's Jessica Green has the origin story of the clothing that will surely never fade away.

JESSICA GREEN, BYLINE: Jacob Davis was a Latvian immigrant working as a tailor in Reno, Nev. He had a customer whose work pants kept tearing. To solve the problem, Davis added these little metal rivets to the corners of the pockets and in other stress points to make them stronger. It worked.


LYNN DOWNEY: And he wanted to mass manufacture his product, but he needed a business partner.

GREEN: That's historian Lynn Downey talking to NPR in 2013. She says Davis teamed up with a dry goods merchant with a familiar name, Levi Strauss. And they went with denim for their reinvented pants.


DOWNEY: Denim was a very old fabric that originated in Europe, first in France called serge de Nimes. It was the toughest fabric around. And men had worn unriveted denim pants for decades as workwear.

GREEN: Strauss and Davis got a patent and worked out a business deal to make the first riveted work pants on May 20, 1873. And we've been wearing blue jeans ever since.


EMMA MCCLENDON: When you think of jeans, you think of the sort of prototypical white male cowboy kind of riding off into the sunset.

GREEN: This is fashion historian Emma McClendon. She spoke with NPR last year.


MCCLENDON: But the reality is that this was workwear that was worn for hard labor. Denim had been worn by enslaved African and African American descendants for generations. It was worn by Chinese immigrants who were building the Transcontinental Railroad. It was worn by women. It was worn by men. And it came in tandem with really grueling hard labor, which is often left out of a sort of romanticized view.

GREEN: Over the years, blue jeans have taken many forms - bootcut, skinny, flare, ripped, low rise, high rise, even blue jean lookalikes called jeggings impersonating the classic denim piece. From coal mines and factories to high-fashion runways, even the Soviet Union had a love affair with denim that was sold on the black market.


MCCLENDON: Jeans are a unique garment because they mean so many different things to so many different people. There's been a way that they have had a staying power through all of these different movements. And each generation, each kind of pocket of culture, has found a way to relate denim, to relate jeans to their circumstances in a unique way, in a way that carries particular meaning.

GREEN: The analysis firm Research and Markets projects the global jeans market will top $95 billion by 2030. Jessica Green, NPR News.


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