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On Levi Strauss’ B’day, Here’s How Indians Fell in Love With Jeans

Even though Levi Strauss started manufacturing denims in 1873, they became popular only in the late 1970s in India

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If one were to trace the jeaneaology of jeans; Levi Strauss would be the grand dada of denims, hands down. The fashion industry celebrates the birth anniversary of the man, on 26 February every year.

When Jacob Davis, a tailor, wanted to patent his idea of using copper rivets on denim pockets that would make them last longer, he approached Strauss to buy a joint patent as he didn’t have the money. The patent was granted to them on 20 May 1873; that marked the birth of mass produced denim.

Even though Levi Strauss started manufacturing denims in 1873, they became popular only in the late 1970s in India
(Photo: Levi Strauss)

Soon, denims became a ubiquitous fashion fix all over America and Europe.

With their big fonts, strong tag lines and effortlessly chic models, the edgy Wrangler’s and Levi’s advertisements sold youth the subliminal idea that wearing a pair of denims signaled a raw, sensual and confident attitude.

But India’s infatuation with denim began not until the late 70s. That too, mostly thanks to a movie that went on to gain cult status.

The Sholayization and Denimization of India

Even though Levi Strauss started manufacturing denims in 1873, they became popular only in the late 1970s in India
Veeru and Jai both wore denims.

With Sholay, Amitabh Bachchan began a social upheaval in India. In the movie, both his character, Jai and Dharmendra’s character Veeru fashioned denims. The Sippys didn’t want their cast to be cliches, writes Anupama Chopra in the book Sholay, Remaking of a classic. And so, atypical of its time, Ramesh Sippy dressed his heroes in denims, western cowboy style.

Veeru and Jai were to be denim clad city side slickers. For the shoot, Amitabh took along his favourite pair of jeans and a jean jacket covered with 60s style stickers popular at the time. Ramesh removed the stickers and the jeans stayed. As Sholay went on to become a roaring success, star struck men across India asked their tailors to get similar denims stitched, or coaxed their relatives to get them from abroad. This was the year 1975.
Anupama Chopra, in Sholay, Remaking of a Classic 

A Right Fit For Women Too

Even though Levi Strauss started manufacturing denims in 1873, they became popular only in the late 1970s in India
Zeenat Aman

Around the same time, actresses Parveen Babi and Zeenat Aman flagged the fabric as fashionable for women, as noted in the book Global Denim.

As Bollywood, India’s national broadcaster of international trends and modernity, continued its affair with denims on screen, jeans began to be rugged down to the masses as well, giving the country a homogeneous item that everyone could wear.

Still, in the 1970s and 1980s few Indian women could emulate the new phoren trend of wearing jeans in the streets. It was almost mythical for a married woman to expect to wear jeans after marriage, although some ‘forward looking’ husbands ‘permitted’ their would-be wives to wear jeans, but only at home; or with a large kurta. The discomfort around women wearing jeans has slowly faded, but not yet diminished.

Denim Diaries

Though an urbanized, upper class, imported clothing item earlier, the growing consumerism in the 1980s and 1990s made denims accessible to middle class Indians with the rise in the manufacture and availability of ready made jeans.

As Bollywood, India’s national broadcaster of international trends and modernity, continued its affair with denims on screen, jeans began to be rugged down to the masses as well, giving the country a homogeneous item that anyone could wear.
Even though Levi Strauss started manufacturing denims in 1873, they became popular only in the late 1970s in India
Ram Pratap Verma, a 32-year-old aspiring Bollywood film actor, alters a pair of trousers in a tailor shop in Mumbai. (Photo: Reuters)

Still, in contrast with the rest of the world where denims were worn by almost the entire populace of nations, jeans remained the clothing choice of a small percentage in India. Small town women still hesitate to wear the garment, even after all these years.

Denims now a Darling?

For all practical purposes, the urban Indian found in jeans a convenient clothing item.

So much so, that to keep up with the massive demand, homegrown textile brand Arvind Mills decided to focus only on denim from 1987, and by 1991 it overtook many established players to become the fourth largest denim producer in the world.

Today, India buys roughly 300 million pairs of jeans every year. We have even come to live unbuttoned, as a famous brand campaign once announced.

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