Civil rights activist Sidney Poitier supporting the Poor People's Campaign at Resurrection City, a shantytown set up by protestors in Washington, DC, May 1968.
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explainer / culture

What the Civil Rights Movement Has to Do With Denim

The history of blue jeans has been whitewashed.
The rugged Marlboro Man. Brooding James Dean. Dusty gold miners and slicked-hair greasers with cigarette boxes rolled up in their T-shirt sleeves. The history of blue jeans is about as American as apple pie, coming from working-class origins with a pioneering spirit.

But do you know what else is all-American? Having the weekday lunch special hurled at you during a counter sit-in, facing a raised baton during a protest march, and walking a mile to work because your civil rights boycott has reached the bus, all while wearing those same cuffed jeans. The only difference is that while history likes to recount the Americana-heavy scenes of gold rush camps and Route 64 drives when discussing denim’s past, it’s not often that you hear about the freedom fighters who, in large part, helped bring the look to the mainstream.

While Elvis Presley and the cast of Rebel Without a Cause helped spark a new appreciation for bootcuts among the Youthquake culture, most people considered them too closely linked with the working man to wear them. For example, in 1969 nearly 200 students got suspended from their high school for wearing dark blue pants because they too closely resembled blue jeans. They were mostly something you wore while cleaning out the garage, not something you put on for cocktails.

But the revolutionaries on the front pages of newspapers helped denim become a staple in everyday people’s wardrobes. “It took Martin Luther King’s march on Washington to make them popular,” wrote Caroline A. Jones, author of Machine in the Studio: Constructing the Postwar American Artist. “It was here that civil rights activists were photographed wearing the poor sharecropper's blue denim overalls to dramatize how little had been accomplished since Reconstruction.”
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