In the 1850s a Bavarian immigrant called Levi Strauss arrived in San Francisco hoping to sell supplies to the miners. He had with him several rolls of cotton canvas intended for tents. Instead, Strauss identified a ready market for stout canvas trousers and overalls suitable for the rugged conditions in the goldfields – in other words, what later came to be called denim jeans or Levis.
The ‘word jean originally denoted a type of heavy, twilled cotton fabric, or fustian. It was a shortening of the sixteenth-century English term Jene or Geane fustian, an indication that the fabric was originally manufactured in the Italian city of Genoa, whose name in Middle English was variously rendered as Geanejenejayne or Jane (from medieval Latin Janua). Before Strauss’s arrival on the mining workwear scene in the mid-nineteenth century, the word jeans was already in recent use in England to describe hardwearing trousers made from this type of cloth.
Later, Strauss replaced the tent canvas with another type of durable fabric called denim, which he dyed blue. Again the name of the original place of manufacture, this time Nîmes in France, is hidden in the word, for denim is a shortening of serge de Nîmes. Nevertheless, it was not until the twentieth century that denims came to denote ‘overalls or trousers made of denim’ or that Strauss’s hardwearing denim trousers came to be classed as jeans. By this time the garments were worn by workmen throughout the United States and had become indispensable wear for American cowboys who, in the 1920s, began to call them Levis’s or Levis after their manufacturer.