A good old-fashioned history lesson

By Lenore Skenazy

You get up in the morning and walk out the door clad in history. Every item you’re wearing owes a debt to the genius of yesteryear, just as surely as Elvis owes a debt to Muddy Waters, and vegans owe a debt to vegetarians.

The problem is, it’s hard to see how the flappers of the 1920s influenced the hippies of the ’60s, or who bequeathed us the skinny jeans of today, until you take a look at the sweep of fashion history. That’s exactly what Daniel James Cole and Nancy Deihl do in their new book, “The History of Modern Fashion.”

“Fashion always interlocks with culture,” says Deihl, director of the master’s program in costume studies at New York University. For instance, adds Cole, who also teaches fashion history at both the university and the Fashion Institute of Technology, just look at the jeans you’re probably wearing right now. (I am!)

Denim is a uniform for many of us today, but most likely it was first used in Europe as a boat covering, says Cole. The word denim comes from “de Nimes”—French for “from the town of Niemes.”

It was those classy Italians in Genoa who turned the boat cloth into pants. The word “jeans” sounds like “Genes,” the French word for Genoa.

While Levi Strauss is often given credit for inventing the iconic pants—which it seems he didn’t—“he was still a genius,” says Cole. That’s because Strauss realized jeans were the perfect thing to make and market in 1849 San Francisco, the epicenter of the gold rush.

The miners there spent a lot of their time knee-deep in the river, panning for gold nuggets. The woolen pants they were wearing rotted when wet. Denim, a strong cotton weave, did not. It could handle mud, water and a lot of wear.

And it still can. That’s one of the reasons jeans are still around. “You can buy Levis today that are essentially the same design as the 1850s,” says Cole.

You can also buy jeans that are very different.

For their book, six years in the making, Cole and Deihl pored over images from every era. In a 1920s magazine they found an ad for denim gardening overalls in pastel colors for women. Bingo! That’s when denim leapt the gender barrier.

By the 1950s, movies starring brooding young men showed those men brooding in blue jeans. Marlon Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause” wore jeans tighter than you’d want to wear if, say, you were panning for gold. But they were perfect for making audiences swoon.

Pretty soon if you wanted to look young and sexy, you, too, were wearing jeans, rebelling against the establishment by refusing to wear neatly pressed pants or dresses. The first Gap store opened in 1969, its name a salute to the chasm between the generations. Jeans were the Gap’s specialty.

By the disco era, the designer world caught on and gave us jeans by Calvin Klein, Gloria Vanderbilt, and Yves Saint Laurent. Now jeans could be fancy.

Those who think deeper about fashion than the rest of us have realized clothes provide three things: utility, status, and seduction. Jeans do all three. No wonder they’re still so popular.

But, of course, they’re not the only fashion item out there. The book takes readers on a beautifully documented romp from the 1850s through today, with stops at every decade, from the Gibson Girl to Kim Kardashian.

Each era introduced some new idea of beauty. In the early 1900s, says Deihl, the perfect figure was the hour glass, with a bust and butt almost cartoonishly pillowy. Garments were lined with padding and ruffles to make slim figures look full. As for legs, who cared? No one saw them.

Screeech! By the 1920s, the female ideal was the exact opposite—flat flappers were dancing in knee-baring skirts. “Suddenly your legs were on display,” says Deihl. “That was kind of traumatic for people.” Maybe not for the guys, but gals had to figure out how to display a body part they’d never bothered with before.

And it hasn’t gotten any easier. The ’30s demanded curves again, and World War II give us broad-shouldered broads as they took on the jobs the menfolk left behind. The ’50s saw a lot of matchy-matchy perfection. And then came the ’60s as almost an echo of the ’20s—another rebellion against the old guard, complete with even shorter skirts (and more leg for ladies to worry about presenting).

The hip-hop revolution of the ’80s gave us tracksuits as fashion, major jewelry for men and our current obsession with sneakers.

Today, says Deihl, fashion is busy mining the past for the next big thing.

Seems like it always has.

Lenore Skenazy is a keynote speaker and founder of the book and blog Free-Range Kids.

Read Lenore Skenazy’s column every Sunday morning on BrooklynPaper.com.

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