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The Marketing of Denim

March 23rd, 2022

By: Phoebe Su

Boot cut, flare, mom, high-rise, straight, wide leg, skinny, boyfriend – you name it. The styles of denim jeans are endless. Have you ever wondered how it became such a staple in our closets today? Not only that, but how has the fabric become so versatile in fashion, specifically in the United States?

Courtesy of BBC

History of Denim

The word “denim” comes from the French phrase “Serge de Nimes,” translating to “Twill of Nimes” (the fabric was made using a twill weave in Nimes, France). Italians tried to recreate the French material, but they were unsuccessful. However, they ended up with a sturdy and robust fabric, which they called “jeane.” For the blue color, the weavers used natural indigo dye, which was the only color available at the time.

The Birth of Levi Strauss & Co.

In 1853, Levi Strauss moved to San Francisco to open a dry goods store targeted towards people who had moved west for the Gold Rush. In 1872, tailor Jacob Davis, who often bought bolts of fabric from Strauss, asked Strauss to partner with him to design a pair of pants that could withstand hard work. They did this by adding denim and copper rivets to the stress areas of the jeans and patented the design. These pants were first sold as waist overalls in the 1870s and then as denim jeans in the 1890s. Although Levi Strauss & Co. was the pioneer of jeans in the United States, there are countless jeans producers today, including Lucky Brand, Lee, Calvin Klein, and more.

Marketing of Denim

Early denim-makers in the 20th century targeted the working class for the material’s durability – specifically western cowboys, miners, and farmers in the United States. During World War II, these jeans were declared an “essential commodity” and sold only to those involved in defense or the military. Up until the 1950s, people called the style “waist overalls.” However, in the late 1950s, the younger generation started to wear these denim trousers as leisurewear and began calling them “jeans.” Levi’s officially started using the term in the 1960s. Younger people didn’t like the idea of looking like their dads, who wore “waist overalls,” so they liked the new term. Jeans also became a symbol of the rebellious teen, largely due to pop culture influence such as James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause'' and Marlon Brando in “The Wild One.”

The 1960s and 1970s gave rise to bold styles such as bell bottoms as they appealed to the free hippie spirit and individuality of the time. Acid wash was the rage in the ‘80s as it snuck its way into punk, grunge, and rock culture. 1990s grunge brought about the era of baggy ripped jeans with pop culture influence from groups like TLC, the Spice Girls, and Destiny’s Child. The 1990s also saw the rise of the bootcut style and the wide-legged style, in addition to the creation of denim jackets. The early 2000s were all about skinny jeans, ripped jeans, and customizable denim – as seen on pop culture icons such as Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, and Nicole Richie. Nowadays, it seems like the styles of bell-bottoms and baggy jeans are making their comeback as people are ditching their skinny jeans. Overall, pop culture was an essential contributor to the successful marketing of denim in America as it adapted according to the times.

Courtesy of P&S Intelligence

Future of the Denim Market

Denim will continue to evolve as always. The market size keeps growing, with a projected CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of 5.8% from 2018 to 2023. With more advanced technology and a focus on sustainability, companies are now looking at different ways of producing these denim fabrics that use less water and promote recycling.


Phoebe Su is one of the Co-Content Directors this semester. She is a sophomore student-athlete at NYU CAS studying Economics and on the NYU Varsity Tennis Team.

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