Just about anyone in North America who grew up from the late 1950s onwards has worn blue jeans. Popular culture has led us to believe that jeans were an “American invention” of the late 19th century, and developed by Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis.
In fact, “jeans” or pants made from the hard-wearing fabric “Gênes” or “blue de Gênes” (blue of Genoa) were worn by sailors sailing from India (the name Dungarees is said to come from Dongari Killa in Bombay, where the fabric was manufactured). Some experts say that the fabric developed simultaneously in Europe and India. Quite likely, it began in Europe and was introduced in India. The name denim comes from “de Nimes” for the French city
Whatever its true origin, the fabric, in Europe was used as far back as the 15th century a material for the common people, the working classes. Because of this, we have little actual evidence of the material. It was worn to shreds by its wearers and disappeared into history.
However, the work of an anonymous 17th century Northern Italian painter, newly discovered and dubbed “The Master of the Blue Jeans”, allows us to put into visual context what was mere supposition before. The painter focused on the poor and working-classes and all but one of his known paintings show people wearing or using a heavy fabric, dyed a familiar Indigo hue. The details in tears reveal the blue was threaded with white and seams are often the familiar double-seams we know so well from modern jeans.