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The Blue Jean Birthday Story: How It Started, How It’s Going Globally

May 16, 2024

Catherine Salfino

It’s funny watching movies or TV shows that don’t really seem that old but then a character makes a call from a phone booth, checks their home answering machine or pops a movie in their VCR. These once-common objects are no longer around. But one thing that’s not obsolete: the blue jeans any movie or TV character often wore on screen.

The blue jean is more than 150 years old and is still going strong. Globally, the denim jeans market was valued at $98.2 billion in 2023, and is projected to experience a 31 percent growth by 2028, when the category is expected to reach nearly $128.7 billion, according to Euromonitor International.

Fashion designer Darcy Barber of Craft Night NYC says blue jeans have evolved into an iconic part of American fashion for a myriad of reasons.

“First and foremost, blue jeans are versatile and durable,” Barber says. “Originally designed as workwear for miners and cowboys in the 19th century, their sturdy construction made them ideal for tough, outdoor jobs. This durability has translated into a timeless appeal that has endured for generations.”

“Blue jeans have evolved into an iconic part of American fashion because of their versatility, durability, rebellious connotations, universal appeal, and association with American culture,” Barber continues. “They have become a symbol of freedom, individuality, and self-expression, making them a timeless and beloved staple in the world of fashion.”

By 2028, the global denim market is expected to see exponential growth, some markets significantly more so than others. The U.S. and Western Europe are expected to continue to dominate: The U.S. should see a 17 percent jump to $21.5 billion over the next five years, while Western Europe is expected to experience 13 percent growth to $18.9, according to Euromonitor International. But more significant growth is also projected for China, India, and Latin America. China is expected to see a 30 percent increase to $16.6 billion, Latin America should see a 35 percent jump to $18.1 billion and India is forecasted to see an 80 percent increase to $6.2 billion.

The numbers are impressive on their own, but perhaps more so considering the modern-day denim bottom’s humble beginning. During the San Francisco Gold Rush in 1853, Bavarian dry goods merchant Levi Strauss set up shop in the city by the bay. Meanwhile, the wife of a local laborer asked inventor Jacob Davis to make a pair of pants for her husband that wouldn’t fall part. His idea? The metal rivet at points of strain, like pocket corners and the base of the button fly. The pants were a hit, and Davis wanted to get a patent on the process. He needed a business partner, so he turned to Strauss, since he had purchased the cloth from Strauss to make the pants. The U.S. patent was granted on May 20, 1873, which Levi Strauss & Co. now recognizes as “501 Day.”

To celebrate its iconic jean and bring people to its stores, Levi’s last month delivered 12-foot-tall “Giant 501 Jeans” to five of its retail locations. Levi’s says sales of the 501 jeans neared $800 million last year and total global company revenues for the 501 jeans were up 23 percent in its direct-to-consumer channel in the first quarter of 2024.

Blue jeans have a universal appeal that transcends age, gender, and socioeconomic status…They can be dressed up or down, making them suitable for a wide range of occasions. This versatility has helped blue jeans become a staple in wardrobes across America and around the world.

Darcy Barber, Designer, Craft Night NYC

Today, Levi’s is considered one of the most prominent jeans brands in the world, along with Lee and Wrangler, according to Statista.

While jeans can run the price gamut even among these popular brands, at $31.7 billion economy jeans account for the majority of sales globally, according to Euromonitor International. That’s followed by standard jeans, with sales of $35.3 billion globally, premium jeans ($21.2 billion), and super premium jeans ($10 billion).

Here in the U.S., denim jeans are popular because 81 percent of consumers find they provide the “perfect blend of style and comfort,” according to Cotton Council International (CCI) and Cotton Incorporated’s 2021 Denim Survey. And fully 85 percent of consumers say they feel comfortable when wearing jeans.

Most U.S. shoppers (74 percent) say denim jeans are their first pick for casualwear, according to the 2024 Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor™ Survey. Further, most choose denim jeans for socializing (59 percent), running errands (54 percent), going to dinner (45 percent), and going to work (35 percent).

Similar sentiments can be seen around the world. In Mexico, 91 percent of consumers say they wear denim jeans regularly, according to the 2021 WGSN x Cotton Incorporated Mexico Denim Study. Mexican consumers prefer to buy their denim in stores because it’s easier to find the right size and fit (69 percent) and they can check out the hand feel of the product before purchasing (53 percent).

Meanwhile in China, 83 percent of consumers say they “own a good selection of denim jeans and enjoy wearing them regularly,” according to the 2021 WGSN x Cotton Incorporated China Denim Study. Most Chinese consumers (61 percent) buy new denim jeans as a way to keep up with the latest fashion trends. In the U.S., just 29 percent of shoppers say they buy denim to be fashionable, according to the 2021 WGSN x Cotton Incorporated USA Denim Study. Rather, most U.S. consumers (63 percent) buy new denim to replace existing jeans that are old/worn out.

Also in the U.S., the majority of consumers (71 percent) prefer their denim primarily be made from cotton, according to the 2024 Monitor™ Survey. In China, that figure jumps to 73 percent, according to the China Denim Study. Notably, the number jumps even higher (to 81 percent) among Mexican consumers.

Denim made from cotton has a circularity element that brands, retailers and consumers can help further. Cotton Incorporated’s Blue Jeans Go Green™program (BJGG) collects denim made from 90 percent cotton or greater and converts it into new products, including building insulation, pet bed inserts, and sustainable packaging for the food and pharmaceutical industries. Consumers can either send their denim in through Zappos for Good or bring it to a participating retailer (some will even offer a percentage discount or money off a new pair of jeans). Retail partners in 2024 include Kimes Ranch, American Eagle, and Rag & Bone. Since the program began in 2006, over 100 brands and retailers have participated in the program, and more than 5.2 million pieces of denim have been collected, keeping more than 2,630 tons of denim from landfills.

Denim for the BJGG program is also collected through planned events, like the one held last weekend with Barber and artist Nick Sizemore at the Westfield Garden State Plaza mall in Paramus, NJ, at its inaugural Good Festival. Guests who recycled a pair of old jeans to The Blue Jeans Go Green™ program could have a second pair of denim transformed into a new, one-of-a-kind wearable masterpiece by Sizemore and Barber. The event aimed to incentivize sustainability efforts across its stakeholders: local communities, retailers, brand partners, and individuals of all ages.

Such events make sense to a designer like Barber.

“Blue jeans have a universal appeal that transcends age, gender, and socioeconomic status,” Barber says. “They can be dressed up or down, making them suitable for a wide range of occasions. This versatility has helped blue jeans become a staple in wardrobes across America and around the world.”