Nothing defines Texans like their blue jeans. Forget the boots, the hat, the Brushpopper shirt, the horse and saddle—denim is the fabric of our lives and one of the last authentic connections to our past. Jeans are about the pioneer settlers, the cattle barons, the wildcatters, the dealmakers, the rockers, and the rednecks—throughout our hallowed history they have never gone out of style. In 1977 a legislator even went so far as to try to have jeans declared the “official state costume.” (An idea that was rightly ignored.) Over the past three decades, everyone else has caught on to what we have always known; 600 million pairs were sold in 1992, making jeans the best-selling pant in the world. Although there are hundreds of labels to choose from, in this state two brands rule. Are you a Levi’s or a Wranglers man (or woman)? How you answer says as much about you as the neighborhood you live in or the kind of pickup you drive.
Shades of Blue
Like most Texas boys my age, i was raised on blue jeans. Back in the sixties, the only sartorial decision a male high school student in Fort Worth faced was whether to wear Levi’s, Lees, or Wranglers. Slacks were for dandies, guys in the slide-rule club, and kids whose parents wouldn’t let them wear jeans. But already the winds of change were kicking up dust devils around our boot heels. The early sixties were marked by a wave of innovations. First came cords, plain jeans with a zipper fly but hewn of corduroy; then white twill Levi’s, which were considered very cool because the Beach Boys wore them. Next were the preshrunk jeans that eliminated the ritual of breaking in a pair to fit the shape of your legs and trunk. Before the diplomas were handed out, we had been bombarded with all kinds of variations on the theme: wheat-colored jeans, boot-cut jeans (positively thrilling the kickers in my crowd), and bell-bottoms, which, I am embarrassed to say, found their way into my closet.
Though we take them for granted now, blue jeans weren’t widely accepted until the late seventies. More than anything else, the 1980 movie Urban Cowboy, starring John Travolta as a disco darling turned chip kicker, brought jeans into the maintstream. Even my friends and family back East began wearing them, and so did the Europeans and the Japanese, who coveted jeans as pieces of Americana that ranked right up there with Mickey Mouse and McDonald’s. And in Communist Russia a mint pair of Levi’s 501’s became the most sought-after article of clothing on the black market.
In 1980 the fashion gurus of New York’s Seventh Avenue emporiums ushered in the era of the designer jean. Baggy jeans were out; form-fitting jeans were in. The new styles were meant, in particular, to flatter a woman’s body. Remember the ads with teenage actress Brooke Shields, wearing just her jeans and purring defiantly, “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins?” Almost overnight, Calvin Klein, Jordache, and Gloria Vanderbilt, among others, became the arbiters of a new casually hip, kicked-back style.
“For the longest time, Levi and Wrangler were talking about a guy with his fingers stuck in his pockets,” Norman Karr, the executive director of Jeanswear Communications in New York, said. “Then designer jeans started selling a girl with her butt sticking out. These jeans forced everyone in the business to think beyond the bounds of basics.” The Big Two responded with form-fitting styles of their own—adding more-flattering lines for women, new models for men with large thighs and seats, and styles for both sexes that took into account the expanding waistlines of aging baby boomers. In the mid-eighties stonewashed and faded denim arrived, jeans aimed at people who had no time to let their jeans fade gracefully. More gratuitous innovations followed: zippers up and down the pant legs that served absolutely no purpose, fashionable patches in strategic places, and machine-ripped jeans. Country singer Dwight Yoakam wears ripped jeans, which is a look that I seriously doubt came from working with barbed wire.
Colors have become an essential part of the sell—as in Wrangler’s Night Green (for Christmas holiday wear) and Pink Diamond from the women’s Prairie Dancer collection. Even bell-bottoms are hot again. But in the past five years, the trend has come full circle. In spite of all the fine-tuning, the basic blue jean has not only survived, it is still the best-selling style around the world.
I find this fuss over a well-worn pair of jeans heartening. I am a basic jeans guy. Unwashed shrink-to-fit jeans may take a little longer to look lived-in, but I’d rather do my own fading than have a machine do it for me. My brand of choice has always been Levi’s 501’s. I love the way they hang on my hips and fit snugly at the crotch. The button fly seems to me more elegant than a zipper. I especially appreciate my 501’s after I’ve broken them in. As the denim fades it softens and feels as sensuous as cashmere. While 501’s may seem practically generic to millions of Texans like me, I’ve discovered that Wranglers may be even more Texan—in particular, the 13MWZ Pro Rodeo Cowboy Cut, a jean so closely tied to the values and heritage of the Lone Star State that I have pondered switching brands.
History does not document the first pair of jeans to be worn in Texas. They were most likely waist overalls sold by Levi Strauss, a Bavarian immigrant merchant who, in 1853, fashioned work pants from heavyweight brown canvas and sold them to miners working the lodes of Northern California during the Gold Rush. When Strauss exhausted his canvas stock, he ordered a heavy, more versatile fabric called denim from a textile company in New Hampshire. He refined his jeans design, adding features like a back pocket with the stitched-on Arcuate Design (the one that looks like the silhouette of a bird in flight), which is the oldest