For all of its casual, rough hewn and seemingly straightforward features, denim is a fabric with a fascinating history. With ties to some of the last 150 years' most pivotal events, the textile has held a mirror up to the values, struggles and triumphs of society. While fashion, in general, is an often reliable indicator of time and place, it might be said that no other fabric--at least in the modern era--has been as iconic as denim.
Worn by such giants of pop culture as James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, it is still a mainstay of today’s couture magazines and runways. It has served as a uniform of sorts for many factions of society, including cowboys, 1950s greasers and counterculture youth. It was often donned by those fighting against racial injustice during the Civil Rights Movement and jeans, seen as symbols of the West, were even “smuggled” into the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
But while it’s versatility has given it mainstream appeal--you’d be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t own something denim--its beginnings are rooted in the lives of the working class. The durability of the fabric, its reliability, made it the no-nonsense go-to for people doing good, honest work.
Originating in Nimes, France and initially known as serge de Nimes (where it gets its present name), the textile achieved widespread popularity in America by none other than legendary denim master, Levi Strauss. Born Loeb Strauss in Germany in 1829, as a young man he would come to America, operate a dry goods store and ultimately create a work pant that would morph into the blue jeans synonymous with his moniker.
It is perhaps strange then, that this fabric of European origin, so associated with the rugged individualism of American culture, would have any connection to the Great White North, let alone British Columbia. But events involving a famous singer and the Hotel Vancouver would give rise to a denim outfit both celebrated and disparaged: the Canadian Tuxedo.
Bing Crosby is said to have been the first multimedia superstar. An Academy Award winning actor, a regular on television variety shows and a seasoned radio performer, he was one of the most prolific artists of the twentieth century. He rallied the troops during WWII, was part owner of a Major League Baseball team and was responsible for one of the highest selling singles of all time--his recording of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” He was as American as apple pie, but a sensation around the world.
Still, on a 1951 trip to Vancouver, a night clerk by the name of Art Cameron would not recognize Crosby. As Lynn Downey, the Levi Strauss & Co. Historian tells it, the singer arrived at the Hotel Vancouver with a friend, dressed in denim and looking less than polished after a hunting trip. Upon inquiring about booking rooms, Cameron, observing their casual garb, informed Bing and his travelling partner that they were “booked solid--for days.” One can imagine the disdain with which this was delivered. But before the situation devolved further, a bellhop recognized Crosby and the two men were set up with cushy lodgings.
When news of the near-snub reached Levi Strauss & Co., a denim tuxedo jacket was designed for the crooner. The piece intended that Bing Crosby never again be accused of being too casual, and apparently even featured a patch that read “Notice to All Hotel Men: a perfectly appropriate fabric and anyone wearing it should be allowed entry to the finest hotels.” Worn with jeans, it created quite the ensemble.
Though the story and creation of the Canadian Tuxedo is rather fun and innocent, Vienna Vernose of CR Fashion Book, posits that the event shifted denim from just a “working class textile...to an innovative fashion statement”--one that we can trace through the decades to the present day. From labourers, activists and celebrities, to the staple it has become in the modern wardrobe, the fabric serves as a guide through important recent history. And it seems that by way of a clerk, holding up the pretensions of one of the province’s poshest hotels, British Columbia had at least a little something to do with it.