Denim: Fashion’s Final Frontier

When 404 corpses where fished out of the Seine between 1796 and 1800 the detailed inventory of their work-wear clothing did not include a single mention of serge de Nîmes. The omission is significant as it undermines the long standing assumption that this French fabric is the direct ancestor of modern denim.

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In fact the term denim – a corruption of de Nîmes – could be little more than a linguistic red herring. Many textiles were given a toponym, that is the name of the town where it was produced or to which, for other reasons, it had become strongly associated. The assumption that a place name indicated place of origin is a risky one, and statistical evidence of the English export market offers a counter view. Modern denim is classified as a hard wearing cotton, twill cloth but in its early forms it cannot be easily classified. Its origins are linked to both serge and fustian, two important groups of cheap, durable fabrics, each of which throw some light on textile history that predates the industrial revolution and standardisation in textile manufacture.

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Serge was a wide and varied category of twill woven worsted or wool blend cloth, generally of medium-weight, hardwearing and cheap, that was well established by the 17th century. The Encyclopedia Britannica’s (1771) definition of serge as, “A woollen stuff manu factured in a loom, of which there are various kinds, denominated either from their different qualities, or from the places where they are wrought; the most considerable of which is the London serge, which is highly valued abroad, and of which a manufacture has been for some years carried on in France,” testifies to the importance of English serge as an influence on French textiles.

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The term ‘serge de Nîîmes’ often appears alongside fustian in trade records which suggests that serge and fustian offered similar qualities. Like serge, fustian was not one fabric but a large group that included jean fustian, which was a fashionable menswear fabric by the early 19th century. It was a twill weave, smooth or napped, often with a line warp and a cotton weft, or a wool weft; subsequently, it was made entirely from cotton. The Encyclopedia Britannica (1771) claimed that:”Right fustian should be altogether made of cotton yarn, both woof and warp” and if we interpret ‘right’ for ‘true’ we have evidence that the fibre composition in any one textile product might vary but, in doing so, default from an ideal standard.

This is an extract from Penelope Alfrey’s article in the Urban issue of Selvedge.

From Levi Strauss & Co.’s 501® jeans to a fashionable women’s walking suit from the 1910s Denim: Fashion’s Frontier at The Museum at FIT comprehensively explores the history and significance of denim.

www.fitnyc.edu/museum 

On until 7 May

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