The History of Ripped Jeans through the Decades


Story and Photos by Emily Graham | Practicum Student

On a pretty spring day, take a seat in the commons area in front of Middle Tennessee State University’s Walker Library and enjoy watching people. 

Here’s what you’re bound to see: couples strolling while holding hands, skateboarders gliding by and students making all kinds of fashion statements, from combat boots to business casual outfits and lots of women wearing the same style of pants: ripped denim jeans. 

Almost every pair you will present a different style to – jagged edges, straight edges, cuts above the knee, cuts below the knee. The slashed denim could offer one rip on each thigh or multiple rips leaving the impression of a pair of pants nearly destroyed. It’s up to the wearer to decide.

Since their introduction for use by the working class in the 19th century, denim jeans have cemented their presence in society spanning multiple decades and social movements, evolving from a statement of rebellion against social norms into a fashion staple in many people’s closets. 

During the Industrial Revolution in America, rapid urbanization allowed for many people who lived in the countryside to move into larger cities with the promise of guaranteed work in factories. These factory jobs were very demanding and because of the extremely low wages at the time, many workers were unable to replace their easily damaged cotton pants. 

 In 1873, Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis obtained a patent for a pair of newly designed jeans made of denim, a strong, but comfortable fabric. The design included copper rivets and a leather tag, a look that became so popular they became an icon, clearly distinguishable from all other jeans on the market. 

Denim jeans had been used for many years, but the addition of the copper rivets improved durability that won the appreciation of the working class, from factory workers on the East Coast, farmers in the midwest, and miners on the West Coast. In 1890, the patent that Strauss and Davis obtained expired, and other brands started to produce their own versions of the popular jeans. 

Two pairs of modern styled ripped jeans

Of course, during the early days of denim jeans, ripped, or otherwise torn garments only occurred with use, according to MTSU adjunct instructor Elizabeth Beasley, who teaches in the Textiles, Fashion Merchandising, and Design program. 

“So typically during this period, if you saw rips or any type of holes in jeans it wasn’t really a fashion statement. It was literally a sign that these people do manual labor and are below the poverty line,” Beasley explained. 

During the 19th century, many American families were surviving off $400 to $500 a year, rendering many working class citizens unable to afford new jeans when theirs had rips or holes. Because of the necessity for durable clothing in manual labor, jeans became associated with low-income individuals, and were not considered fashionable, Beasley noted. 

However, starting in the 1920s and 30s, there was a shift in how denim and blue jeans were viewed. Movies played a large role in causing this shift, with denim-clad Western movie actors and actresses such as John Wayne and Ginger Rogers, became household names and romanticized the “cowboy life.” In the 1940s, World War II rationing brought changes to every aspect of American life, and the textile industry was no exception. Jeans became an integral part of the image America projected onto the rest of the world. 

“You have American GIs overseas bringing denim and wearing it on their days off. This is probably about the time when denim really starts to become associated with the American people, American culture and wealth and status,” Beasley said. 

After WWII, came the 1950s, a strict and conservative decade in America, and denim took on a negative connotation, primarily from movies such as James Dean’s “Rebel Without a Cause.” 

This continued into the 1960s when denim was adopted as the fabric of choice in the counterculture “hippie” movement. Decorating jeans became popular during this time with many people adorning their denim with painted images, appliques, and patches. 

“With the whole hippie movement, it was basically a sign of anti-establishment, so a lot of people who were a part of the movement were wearing it as a sign of solidarity with the working class, because previous decades and centuries before, denim and blue jeans were what working class people in America wore,” Beasley said. 

Wearing torn and “holey” denim pants didn’t become a fashion statement, however, until the 1970s, when jeans were commandeered by the punk rock movement. In 1973, designer Vivienne Westwood and Sex Pistols band manager Malcom McLaren opened a London store named Let It Rock, which sold clothes that were considered outside the mainstream of fashion. “The type of clothing they sold would be things with safety pins in it, graphic tees with slogans, anything that showed anarchy, intentional rips and tears and stains and things like that,” Beasley explained. “The whole idea of doing the ‘do-it-yourself’ stuff to your clothes was to show that you felt isolated from the mainstream.” 

The rips and holes popularized during this decade were a symbol of the anger and non-conformity with society that defined the punk rock movement. Ripped jeans became synonymous with dissident cultures that traditional thinkers deemed outcasts of ‘“normal” society. Because of this “bad boy” association, the Baby Boomer generation accepted the trend as a rebellion against their parents and authority. 

By the 1980s, ripped jeans became a common sight in luxury fashion. “That’s when we start to see the designer jeans. Gloria Vanderbilt had her jeans, Jordache, Calvin Klein, all the big designers making acid wash, stone wash, pre-ripped, pre-shredded jeans,” Beasley said. Celebrities like Madonna began routinely wearing ripped jeans in performances and photo shoots. Beasley explained that “the 90s in general was very fragmented with fashion. You still have high end designers like Versace doing denim, and you also have the whole grunge movement unfolding in the Pacific Northwest.” 

Beasley said the grunge movement “was based in anti-fashion and the notion of not caring about what clothes you wore. Combined with a rise in thrifting and second-hand clothing, wearing ripped jeans was not an intentional fashion statement but a byproduct of the anti-fashion movement.” 

Fashion trends tend to follow a cycle, with many styles coming in and out of relevance throughout the years as different clothing influences different generations. However, jeans have been able to stay relevant throughout decades and centuries of America’s history. Ripped jeans especially, even though they were negatively perceived, have always maintained some sort of relevance through the decades. The association with protest and social anarchy that ripped jeans has maintained throughout the years has only strengthened that relevancy. “Having all of these little subcultural groups that all have their own belief systems and ideals reinforced the popularity of denim, almost like if you’re wearing it you stand for something or have some type of belief system, depending on how you present yourself to the world,” Beasley said. 

To contact Lifestyles Editor Ethan Pickering, email lifestyles@mtsusidelines.com.

For more news, visit www.mtsusidelines.com, or follow us on Facebook at MTSU Sidelines or on Twitter at @Sidelines_News 

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