The Moment That Made Blue Jeans A Fashion Icon

How Blue Jeans Became a Fashion Icon

How Blue Jeans Became a Fashion Icon

Guest Post by Sandra Keller 

In 1955 there was one moment that kickstarted the popularity of blue jeans. Previously denim was used for work overalls, but wasn’t regarded as popular or cool enough to enter mainstream fashion. This was until 1955, when ‘Rebel Without A Cause’ starring James Dean was released. Dean became one of the coolest actors of his generation, and the more famous he got, the more people wanted to look like him.

Blue Jeans – From Workwear To Fashion Icon…

James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause - Blue Jeans

James Dean wearing blue jeans in Rebel Without a Cause. Image by Loco Steve

Dean’s trademark in Rebel Without A Cause was his bright blue jeans. Originally the movie was going to be filmed in black and white, a decision that wasn’t changed until after production had started. This decision to switch to Technicolor led the the director, Nicholas Ray, to choose the brightest possible outfits for the cast, so he could show off this new technology to its full extent.

During filming the film crew noticed that James Dean’s ordinary blue Lee 101 Riders would show up on camera as a muddy green. To counter this, each pair of jeans he wore in the film was repeatedly dyed indigo. The excessive dying caused the jeans to turn an extremely bright blue, which looked ridiculous to the eye, but perfect through the camera lens.

It is thought that this perfect, original, unrepeatable pair of jeans was responsible for the garment’s huge surge in demand. Everybody wanted this pair of blue jeans, and few realised the lengths that the director had gone through to create them. Nicholas Ray’s overdying created the same lure of unachievable perfection that Photoshop provides today. This constant demand for the perfect jeans led to them becoming the fashion icon they are now. In fact, Levi’s 501 jeans are now the highest selling clothing item of all time!

Didn’t Jeans Exist Before James Dean?

Levi & Strauss 501 Jeans - 1955

Levi & Strauss 501 Jeans in 1955. Courtesy of Levis Vintage Clothing.

Yes, jeans were worn well before this film, but only for work. The history of jeans can actually be traced back to 1853, when Levi Strauss moved to San Francisco whilst working for his brother’s dry goods business. A regular customer, Jacob Davis was a tailor who noticed that one of his customers would repeatedly experience rips in his denim work overalls at the pockets and the fly.

To counter this, Davis decided to put metal rivets at the points that were most likely to tear. These riveted overalls were extremely popular, so to protect his idea Davis went to Levi Strauss with the proposition of filing a joint patent. Their patent was accepted on May 20th 1873, which is considered the day that blue jeans were born.

These jeans made ideal work clothes for miners, especially during the gold rush, due to their comfort and extreme durability. However, they only became fashionable to wear socially when James Dean portrayed them as the must-have garment for teenagers to define themselves as a rebel. Following Rebel Without A Cause, the likes of Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley further boosted the popular appeal of blue jeans, helping them become the successful product they still are today.

The T-Shirt: is It Coincidence or Something More?

Marlon Brando wearing a t-shirt in A Streetcar Named Desire

Marlon Brando wearing a t-shirt in A Streetcar Named Desire. Image by Elena-Lu

Coincidentally, it was only four years before Rebel Without a Cause made it’s debut into American cinema that Marlon Brando did something very similar.  Prior to Marlon Brando wearing his t-shirt as an over garment in A Street Car Named Desire t-shirts were thought of strictly as undergarments.  However, Brando helped make t-shirts an acceptable and fashionable outer garment.

Had it not been for James Dean or Marlon Brando who knows where blue jeans or t-shirts would be today!



Sandra Keller is a casual fashion enthusiast.  When she’s not keeping up with the lastest trends in denim or finding jeans online at the Jeanstore she enjoys spending time with family and friends.

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Filed under Fashion, Fashion History, Style, t-shirts, Wardrobe

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