Interno del Mias Mercato Italiano dell'Articolo Sportivo alla Fiera di Milano nel 1967 (18/03/1967 - 21/03/1967) by PublifotoFondazione Fiera Milano
“I want to die with my blue jeans on”
In the beginning was the blue jean.
Well, perhaps not, but our contemporary world would not be the same without them. No other garment has survived so many social eras since appearing on the scene—so much so that it is hard to imagine a world without them.
Of all the adjectives that can be used to describe jeans and their history, the most fitting is without a doubt “enduring”. For they have survived the sense of time and social change, the traces of which are accessible to us all, indelibly impressed on the collective memory.
The reason is obvious. The one hundred and fifty years that jeans have been around - a milestone reached in 2023 - tell us not only of the history of a garment, but of a community that knows no borders.
The story officially begins in 1873, on May 20, to be exact, when the tailor Jacob Williams Davis, a Latvian emigrant (born in Riga in 1834, but based in Reno, Nevada as of the 1850s) and Levi Strauss, a textiles merchant who had immigrated from Bavaria, joined forces to file patent application No. 139.12 in San Francisco, registering the trousers they called “Jeans XX.” In pioneering fashion, they filed the patent together, because Davis on his own could not afford the $68 registration fee.
Pubblicità Officine Ri Ri (aprile 1957)Fondazione Fiera Milano
The idea they patented was a simple one—a new system for reinforcing points of strain on overalls, made from heavy cotton cloth, with the same copper rivets used for the tarpaulins of carriages and for saddlecloths.
 Denim, from the French serge de Nîmes, the name given to a hard-wearing twilled fabric made by French weavers since the sixteenth century, featuring a surface of diagonal parallel ridges.
The first two factories opened their doors in California in 1886. From that moment on, the jeans they manufactured (501, from the first lot produced) would always feature a leather patch on the waistband bearing the Two Horse logo.
After sales began declining, the turnaround came in the 1920s, when improvements made by the Stern brothers—Davis’s grandchildren—brought Levi’s 501 jeans back in vogue. They then moved on to become a symbol of the rugged frontiers of the West in the 1930s, sported by cowboys on the plains and, by the end of the decade, on the silver screen, when worn for the first time, turned up at the hem, by John Wayne in Stagecoach.
Icon status was definitively achieved in the 1950s. Cementing their reputation this time as the ultimate in cool was another Hollywood legend. Worn by Marlon Brando in 1953 as the biker gang leader in The Wild One, jeans became the symbol of a new generation.
From that moment on, their place in history and legend was sealed.
The rebel energy and counterculture of the 1960s saw jeans become everyday apparel, and a regular sight at demonstrations and sit-ins. From the album covers of folk singers and pop groups (Bob Dylan, Freewheelin’; The Beatles, Abbey Road; Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers) to music festivals (Woodstock, 1969), protest marches against the Vietnam War, and bands of Mods and Rockers fighting in the UK, jeans were everywhere.
Salone internazionale della musica alla Fiera Campionaria di Milano del 1959 (post 1959/04/12 - ante 1959/04/27) by Ancillotti & MartinottiFondazione Fiera Milano
While it may be true that Levi Strauss himself never sported a pair in all his life, a century later everyone was wearing them, on screen and off—from Jane Russell to Grace Kelly, Doris Day to Jackie O, who in changing her name from Kennedy to Onassis, also shed her Chanel suits for a pair of blue jeans.
Giovane coppia alla Fiera Campionaria di Milano del 1985 (14/04/1985 - 23/04/1985) by Berengo Gardin, GianniFondazione Fiera Milano
Consecrating their stardom in the collective imagination, there was even Marilyn Monroe, who wore then in River of No Return, by O. Preminger, in 1954 and again in The Misfits, by J. Houston, in 1961. But their timeless appeal would come thanks to the music world and rock and pop stars of the likes of Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, the Ramones and Joe Strummer, Bruce Springsteen and Madonna.
One year before the turn of the millennium The Times definitively declared jeans the garment of the century.
Where do you get
Those blue, blue jeans
Faded, patched secret so tight?
Where do you get
That walk oh so lean?
The Who (I’m One, 1971)
Grande folla alla Fiera Campionaria di Milano del 1985 Grande folla alla Fiera Campionaria di Milano del 1985 (14/04/1985 - 23/04/1985) by Berengo Gardin, GianniFondazione Fiera Milano
And in Italy?
According to linguist Giovanni Battista Boccardo, writing for the Treccani encyclopaedia, it was not until 1956 that the expression blue jeans made its way into the Italian language.
It was a watershed year, marked by the release in April of Rebel Without a Cause. The trailblazing success of the movie and its lead star, James Dean, left a deep impression through the spirit of imitation that it inspired. The first occurrence in Italian of the words blue jeans was recorded on 30 August that year, in advertising in the magazine Oggi.
Blue jeans quickly became the emblem of Italian youth, as new generations were won over by their American appeal and the counterculture they had come to represent.
But just like any social change, it was not all smooth going. As a symbol of breaking the rules, jeans attracted hostile opposition—as did the Teddy Boys who wore them, considering the heated parliamentary debate over youth hooliganism—harsh criticism, and were even banned by some schools in the country.
Gruppo di ragazzi alla Fiera Campionaria di Milano del 1985 Gruppo di ragazzi alla Fiera Campionaria di Milano del 1985 (14/04/1985 - 23/04/1985) by Berengo Gardin, GianniFondazione Fiera Milano
“The trappings of the devil”
By the end of the 1960s, though, even Italy was moving with the times. As beatniks, hippies, and the protest movement were all making headway, social models were changing, norms were being challenged, and even religious and sexual taboos were crumbling.
Youth became a defined and distinct social category—and very soon a precise consumer target, too.
As the liberation movement swept its way through customs, language and advertising, its next target was censorship. The 1970s was fertile ground for creative types of the likes of Oliviero Toscani and Emanuele Pirella, whose provocative slogans spared nobody, not even the Vatican. Theirs was the celebrated “Thou Shalt Have No Other Jeans Before Me,” as was the unforgettable “If You Love Me, Follow Me,” across the half-naked backside of model Donna Jordan, for Jesus Jeans.
Giovani tifosi alla Fiera Campionaria di Milano del 1985 Giovani tifosi alla Fiera Campionaria di Milano del 1985 (14/04/1985 - 23/04/1985) by Berengo Gardin, GianniFondazione Fiera Milano
The controversy unleashed brought no less than Pier Paolo Pasolini to speak up in defence of jeans and freedom of thought, on the pages of the newspaper Corriere della Sera—“the Vatican’s ‘Jesus’ and the blue-jeans ‘Jesus” have come head to head. [...] The Vatican’s Jesus has lost.”
 From “Sviluppo e progresso” in Pasolini. Saggi sulla politica e sulla società, edited by Walter Siti, Mondadori, Milan 1999
Visitatori su una panchina alla Fiera Campionaria di Milano del 1985 Visitatori su una panchina alla Fiera Campionaria di Milano del 1985 (14/04/1985 - 23/04/1985) by Berengo Gardin, GianniFondazione Fiera Milano
Any fight against the winds of change is always a losing battle. From the Land of the Rising Sun to the Soviet Bloc, jeans would conquer the world. In Italy, they would find a permanent place in the language, on bodies, and in the collective imagination.
By the 1980s, jeans were ubiquitous—on the covers of Vogue magazine, in song lyrics, in the fast food restaurants where Milan’s subcultures would hang out. Even the politician Bettino Craxi wore a pair to the Quirinal Palace (and was promptly reprimanded for it by President Pertini).
Garibaldi, no doubt, would have been proud—his own denim trousers from 1860 are held by the Central Risorgimento Museum in Rome.
('Sti blue jeans i' mo' nun saccio levà) mannaggia
[(These blue jeans, I just can’t take them off.) Damn it]
('Sti blue jeans so' stritt' e comme se fa?) Mannaggia
[(These blue jeans are just so tight, how do you do it?) Damn it]
Renzo Arbore (Smorza è Lights, 1981)
The Fair As a Lens on Social Customs
Demonized, idolized, and reinvented, jeans have changed shape and meaning repeatedly over the course of their history.
The rich corpus of visual images produced by the fair over the decades gives us valuable insight into their rising fortunes. They document society before the blue jean and after the blue jean, showing us how society has become what it is today.
Perhaps the most iconic and significant of all are the photographs taken by Gianni Berengo Gardin at the Great Milan Fair of 1985.
They capture a transformation as it unfolds, seen from above in the visitors at the fair (no longer in their Sunday best or the finely tailored garments of earlier decades) and in close-ups of changing habits and customs. Jeans could be seen all over the place—in the workwear of workers, in the casual wear of youth, in the ready-to-wear fashion paraded on catwalks.
True to its essence, once again the Fair proves what an important lens it is for interpreting the changing social trends and consumption patterns of the country.