Blue Denim, A Painting Seems To Show, Is Centuries Older Than Levi’s

The origin of the world’s most enduringly popular fabric is in ­dispute, as a new exhibition spotlights a claim that firmly links denim with 17th-­century Italy and takes its history back 200 years.

Blue denim, that all-American ­symbol of informality and a life lived on the open range, is already also contentiously attributed to ­southern France, while modern jeans ­mythology still has it that Levi Strauss, a German immigrant, first came up with the idea of making workwear out of this sturdy cotton in San Francisco 150 years ago.

Mother Sewing With Two Children, another work by “Master of the Blue Jeans” showing what seems to be a denim skirt. Photograph: Fondazione Cariplo

Now a gallery run by international fine art dealer Maurizio Canesso is appealing for further research to help identify an anonymous painter who specialised in street scenes that often depict poor people in northern Italy wearing what looks like blue denim.

Galerie Canesso, which has showrooms in major European cities and exhibits at London art fairs, is ­celebrating 30 years of trade in May with a touring exhibition of the major works it has sold, lent back by their owners.

A centrepiece will be Woman Begging With Two Children, one of ten paintings by the unknown “Master of the Blue Jeans” that Canesso believes establish the roots of the ­fabric in his native Lombardy.

The painting’s central figure wears what seems to be a frayed denim skirt.

“Unfortunately, we have no new theories about who the Master of the Blue Jeans was,” said Véronique Damian of Galerie Canesso in Paris, adding that clues still point to the ­artist having spent most of his career in Lombardy in the late 17th century, although there are reasons to think he trained elsewhere.

Six months ago the nearby coastal city of Genoa, which claims to be the home of “jeans” (as in the denim label Blue de Gênes, “Genês” being the department of the first French Empire containing the city), marked its claim with a big exhibition called Genova Jeans. “We are ready to host in Genoa an event that will lead to the rediscovery of one of the world’s most famous fabrics and garments whose origins are inextricably linked to our city,” said the city’s mayor, Marco Bucci.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in 2005’s drama Brokeback Mountain. Blue jeans are an American symbol of informality and life on the range.
Photograph: Reuters

This month a venue in Milan, Mudec, is promoting Levi’s own version of the story with a free exhibition, which includes a pair of jeans worn by a miner in the early 1870s.

The Levi story dates back to the construction of the railroad in North America and the growth of mining and ranch work. According to company lore blue jeans were born on 20 May 1873 when Strauss and Jacob Davis, a Nevada tailor, obtained a US patent on putting rivets in men’s “work pants”. The product is now an industry worth $91bn a year. Denim trousers were only later ­manufactured in the famous blue colour and Levi’s called them “waist overalls”, not “jeans”, until 1960.

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The French argue that denim comes from the city of Nîmes, where a cotton twill cloth made of wool and silk was known as “serge de Nîmes”. According to this version it was a strong enough fabric for the sails of ships and for sailors’ clothing.

The cultural tussle comes as blue denim is once again all over the fashion pages. While it never truly goes away, some stylists currently ­advocate wearing not just double denim, but triple, to show real conviction.

Only in North Korea are jeans permanently out of fashion. Gardener Alan Titchmarsh’s lower half was blurred out when an episode of his BBC show, Garden Secrets, aired recently in the communist state due to the item’s association with America and the wider, “decadent” West.

An exhibition on the history of the fabric, “Jeans, From the Street to the Ritz”, running until in March in Madrid’s Museo del Traje, gave the final word on the subject to French designer Yves Saint Laurent. The show’s title was a nod to his 1968 slogan during the Paris student riots: “Down with the Ritz! Long live the street!”, but it also acknowledged his other admiring quote: “I wish I had invented blue jeans. They have expression, modesty, sex appeal, ­simplicity, all I hope for in my clothes.”

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