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Are you wearing waist overalls!

Until the 1960s, jeans were known as "waist overalls."

Who knew the California gold rush would spin off a fashion trend that has lasted nearly 150 years? Probably not the gold miners who donned Levi Strauss’ first denim pants. The jeans we wear today as casual apparel initially had a different function, marketed as sturdy work pants that could withstand a day in the mines or manual labor on a farm. And they had a different name, too: waist overalls. Strauss, a Bavarian immigrant who ran a dry goods store in San Francisco during the 1850s, catered to prospectors and settlers looking to strike it rich in California’s gold claims. But while Strauss’ name is sewn into the history of jeans, the idea for heavy-duty apparel actually came from Jacob Davis, a Reno, Nevada, tailor who was a customer at Strauss’ store. Around 1872, Davis approached Strauss with a concept for work pants that used copper rivets and stitching to bulk up the weakest points of traditional pants; within a year the duo had patented their design for denim workwear, initially available in indigo or brown hues.Strauss marketed the waist overalls under the Levi Strauss & Company name, first commissioning seamstresses to stitch the pants together from their homes before building a factory in the 1880s. Over time, Strauss would add designs for other reinforced work clothes such as shirts, true overalls, and coats.

As the gold rush era wound down, the popularity of jeans grew with the help of Hollywood Westerns of the 1920s and ’30s. World War II skyrocketed denim “dungarees” to popularity thanks to their durability; jeans became standard issue for soldiers and factory workers alike. But it was the postwar ’50s and turbulent ’60s that cemented the pants as everyday wear. Actors such as Marlon Brando in 1953’s The Wild One and James Dean in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause gave denim a counterculture reputation and helped usher in a trendy, new name: jeans, a centuries-old name for denim that originally came from the French name for the port of Genoa, Italy (Génes).

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