Blue Jeans: American or Italian?

Blue Jeans: American or Italian?

Not so fast! In this blog post, my colleague Karen Brooks stated that denim work pants were developed by Jacob Davis in the late 1800s. However, the question is: Where does the iconic fabric come from? Jeans have become such a staple in American wardrobes that we may not question the origin of the term and the cloth itself. Jeans are as American as pizza is Italian, right? As a native Italian, I will make a very unpopular statement and claim for my country both pizza and jeans.

The word jeans is believed to come from the city of Genoa (Genova) in Italy, where a sturdy twilled cotton cloth, used to make working and everyday clothing, was being produced and exported in the second half of the 1500s. It was known as “geanes” or “jeans” in reference to its Genoese provenance and primarily was destined for use by the lower-middle classes because of its inexpensive, yet durable, quality.

On level six of the North Building you will find a rather large canvas displaying a woman begging with two children. On loan from the Galerie Canesso in Paris, this painting is part of Spun: Adventures in Textiles, our museum-wide celebration of textile art. The work, dated to the last quarter of the 1600s, shows the woman in a large, torn skirt, the fabric of which will look very familiar to you. For the recurring depiction in his paintings of this iconic canvas, the unknown artist has been named “Master of the Blue Jeans.” Little is known about his artistic activity, but his intensely realistic scenes of everyday life seem to suggest he spent time in Lombardy, where he would have absorbed the Lombard-Venetian culture and its tendencies toward realism.

By the way, as much as I’d like to claim an Italian origin for the word denim, it is believed to come from the expression “de Nîmes” (from Nîmes), the beautiful city in the south of France. But that’s another story.

Image: Installation shot of The Master of the Blue Jeans, Woman Begging with Two Children, on loan from Galerie Canesso, Paris. Level six of the North Building.

Angelica Daneo is the curator of painting and sculpture at the Denver Art Museum. Angelica has been at the DAM since 2004.

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