Vintage Denim Jeans

Vintage denim jeans stacked on top of a clothing rack.

Denim made of 100% cotton weave will decompose within weeks if planted in the ground. On the body denim’s durability can be observed over decades of use, but the twill weave fabric on its own will degrade and leave the buttons behind. “Serge de Nîmes,” or, a sturdy denim from Nîmes, the provenance of denim fabric in the late 1700s. Accidentally brilliant, the twill weave invented in Nîmes, France, was created while artisans attempted to recreate a similar fabric produced in Genoa, Italy. Serge de Nîmes denim is the foundation of denim as it is recognized today.

The process to make standard denim fabric is as follows:

  1. Spin cotton fiber into yarn.
  2. Dye is either introduced to some of the yarn or not introduced to the yarn in its entirety.
  3. The yarn is woven using a projectile loom or a shuttle loom.
  4. The twill weave fabric is either sanforized or not sanforized.

Popularized by Levi Strauss & Co. The most widely recognized use of denim is for making blue jeans. Indigo dye and metal rivets at the stress points of the garment, a design patented by Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss on May 20, 1873. Referred to as “overalls” or “waist-overalls” until the 1960s, blue jeans transitioned from gold rush workwear to Hollywood moviestar attire to modern daily wear for comfort and style. During which the manufacturing process of jeans remained nearly unchanged, until the advent of the projectile loom, a machine that allowed for the production of larger sheets of denim fabric at faster speeds. Invention to increase supply to meet demand, a well told story but one that marked the end of self edge denim. Largely unnoticed at the time, denim collectors and connoisseurs detected the change and sought out the higher quality selvedge (i.e., self-edge finished denim made on a shuttle loom machine - the older and less efficient machine that was replaced by the projectile loom). Vintage denim can be categorized by a variety of aspects, however in terms of quality levels over the years of denim production the answer not reliant on brand name, design, and condition of the jeans is selvedge or non-selvedge. Selvedge denim is produced in smaller rolls, the machine runs the weft yarn back and forth across the entire sheet of fabric which self finishes the edges around the warp yarn. Often exposing the redline. Self-edge denim seams will not unravel or fray in the finished jeans while non-selvedge denim has unfinished edges that need to be sewn and are subject to greater wear and tear that end in fraying and loss of structural integrity. The integrity of selvedge denim is revered in the vintage denim market and makes for a great pair of vintage jeans that will stand the test of time.

Finding the Right Pair of Jeans

Beyond structural components and production methods, denim has seen decades of design trends, detours, and embellishments. Observed in retrospect, a vintage shopper can select their favorite designs throughout the years to match their taste and intended styling. Bell Bottoms from the 60s or punk styled jeans from the late 70s to daisy dukes and later to baggy jeans in the early 90s. The embellishments, rips, fading, paint stains, tears, fraying, patchwork, and level of care over the years are all evidence of the stories the jeans hold, finding a pair of vintage jeans that speak to you is an experience worth the search, and the final result is the addition of worn-in denim special to your closest and your outfits.

Too good to be true and too old to be nice, a common fallacy. Vintage denim is quite simple in reality; find a pair of jeans you like and buy them (tailor them later if you want a custom fit), people often think that vintage shopping requires requisite knowledge or a sharp eye for worthwhile gems amongst the thousands of offerings. Not exactly the case, in person, finding vintage denim to buy and wear is as simple as visiting your local GoodWill or a curated vintage shop near you. Feel the fabric, compare the inseam length to yourself, then check the tags, fly and seams. Quality construction or lack thereof is readily apparent when handling a pair of jeans in person. As for online vintage denim shopping, read the product description and view the images closely, compare the jeans to other offerings online and if you trust the seller, make the decision. Vintage jeans sold online should be well measured and documented, there is a standard level of information when it comes to vintage jeans online. Trust the seller and go from there.

Vintage Denim Community

Denim jeans span a spectrum of styles from JNCO jeans to Jordache jeans. Denim aficionados are wearers and collectors, upcyclers and contributors. Denim has maintained a strong following since its rise to popularity at the turn of the century, a utilitarian material that feels and looks good on the body. Denim jeans become a piece of your life, a counterpart to your stories, an accompaniment to your finest, worst, and ordinary moments. Try them out, if you have a question ask the merchant, if you want custom fits - tailor the jeans, try new styles, shop jeans with flaws or worn in aspects that would take you decades to recreate with a new pair of jeans. Have fun with it, anyway you break it down, you are wearing a sustainable pair of vintage clothing and contributing your money to the movement away from fast fashion supply and demand.

Pairs of jeans with extra zippers, pockets, rips on the knees, frayed cuffs, paint stains, interesting washes, patchwork, and limited production times and lines are the holy grail of vintage denim. The pieces you can not reproduce are inherently special and come with an extra emphasis on individual style and outfits that steal the sidewalk. Stop the show, hold the phone, wear the daring piece of denim.