Jeans Very, Very Old

by Liz Colville

What are jeans to you? Jane Birkin resting on a wall in Paris in the 1960s? Things that became very expensive at the beginning of the last decade? The Marlboro Man? Skin-tight $8 things from Forever 21? A thing of the past, because — leggings are here to stay! — ? Jeggings? Well, it turns out jeans are far older than your fondest or most boring memories of them — perhaps even 360 years old, according to an art exhibit now at New York’s Didier Aaron gallery that originated in Paris last spring. The exhibit is called “The Master of the Blue Jeans,” and features seven paintings depicting people wearing alleged denim long before its rise to fame in Gold Rush-era America. They’re believed to have been painted by one person, aka “The Master.” Of the blue jeans.

If you think just a little about the etymology of the word “jean,” this starts to make more sense: the exhibition curators believe that in the 17th century, a “fustian cotton” otherwise known as denim was referred to as “genes,” because it originated in the Italian city of Genoa. The word “denim,” similarly, is believed to be derived from the words “de Nîmes,” meaning from the French city of Nîmes.

Rich people didn’t wear denim the way they do today, but “The Master,” who depicted peasants, made his subjects, who wore denim “jackets, aprons and dresses,” look more like nobility, as if denim could somehow make them seem cooler, forgetting that only money can do that.