How Curry Western Sholay Made Blue Denim Cool 

The denim may be 142 years old, but it came and conquered India not until the 1970s

Updated
India
3 min read
A screenshot from the movie Sholay.
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Denim, as we know it, was created on 20 May 1873.

Jacob Davis, a tailor, wanted to patent his idea of using copper rivets on denim pockets that made them last longer but he didn’t have the money. He approached Levi Strauss to buy a joint patent. The patent was granted to them on 20 May 1873; and this was the birth of the denim.

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

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

The Sholayisation and Denimisation of India

Veeru and Jai both wore denims.
Veeru and Jai both wore denims.
(Photo Courtesy: YouTube screenshot)

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, Ramesh Sippy wanted his heroes to wear 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.

A Right Fit For Women Too

Zeenat Aman
Zeenat Aman

Parveen Babi and Zeenat Aman in the 1970s and 1980s began wearing jeans with short, and tucked in blouses. The edgy Wrangler’s and Levi’s advertisements in magazines, too, warmed youth to the attitude that a pair of denims suggested.

Still, few women could emulate this new phoren trend on the streets. It was almost mythical for a married woman to expect to wear jeans after marriage, although some ‘forward looking ‘ men reassured their would-be wives they could 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

As Bollywood, anxious to show off its modernity, started to flirt with denims, the fabric began to be rugged down to the masses, solving the problem that had vexed Indians since colonial times – of what to wear.

Though sporadic earlier, the consumerism in the 1980s and 1990s opened Indians to the idea of wearing readymade denims.

Ram Pratap Verma, a 32-year-old aspiring Bollywood film actor, alters a pair of trousers in a tailor shop in Mumbai. (Photo: Reuters)<!--EndFragment-->
Ram Pratap Verma, a 32-year-old aspiring Bollywood film actor, alters a pair of trousers in a tailor shop in Mumbai. (Photo: Reuters)

But still in India, denims remain the clothing choice of a few, in contrast with the rest of the world.

Denims now a Darling?

In 1987, homegrown textile brand Arvind Mills decided to focus only on denim and by 1991 it had become the fourth largest denim producer in the world.

Departmental stores like Shopper’s Stop tried to bring in an international feel to their denim sections too, playing rock bands like Dire Straits and Led Zeppelin in the background.

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.

(This story was first published on 20 May 2015 and has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark the birth anniversary of Levi Strauss)

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