Words by Lee Powell

Photo credit:
Japanese Loomed Selvedge jeans. Photo © Rumble59 / Rockabilly Rules. Used by permission

 

Nothing epitomises the rockabilly and 50s US rebellious look more than a pair of denim jeans. Plus, there is nothing quite like finding the right pair of jeans and never wanting to take them off.

Originally produced as work wear due to their durability and hardwearing nature, it was towards the tail end of the 40s and early 50s that jeans made the transition from working man to teenager and carried a cool yet dangerous attitude with them. This was helped by the likes of Marlon Brando’s brutish characterisation of Stanley Kowalski in 1951s A Street Car Named Desire and then by 1955s A Rebel Without A Cause in which James Dean portrays juvenile delinquent Jim Stark. Jeans had become synonymous with rebellious, troubled teenagers, rockabillies, greasers, bikers and street-gangs.

Since then, men’s jeans have gone through numerous incantations and exist nowadays in a dizzying array of styles, however for that perfect ‘Rockabilly’ style it’s vital to look back to the designs worn by these 50s youths and no jean structure embodies the true 50s spirit and appearance better than those of Selvedge jeans.

Until the mid to late 50s, the manufacturing process of jeans had remained largely unchanged since the initial inception of shuttle looms towards the end of the 1800s. Shuttle looms produced tightly woven, high-density denim by using a continuous cross-yarn that is passed through the vertical lines of cloth to make a compacted zigzag style structure (have a look inside your jeans and you’ll see what I mean as modern manufacturing relies on the same structure, just delivered differently). Due to the design of the shuttle looms, they were limited to a width of denim that was able to be produced – which stood somewhere around the 32 inches mark – whilst there was little or no limit to the length. Because of the narrowness of the denim, the jean manufacturer had to utilise the whole width of the fabric, right up to and including its very edges. In order to do this, these edges of the denim were bound in a contrast wrap to produce a clean, crisp finish that wouldn’t fray or unravel. This wrap was usually red; however other colours were used from time to time. The name Selvedge itself is derived from the joining for “self” and “edge” and relates to the contrast binding on the out-seam of the denim.

Towards the end of the 50s, jeans were becoming increasingly popular in mainstream culture due in part to James Dean and young males wanting to emulate his bad-boy look. Never one to miss an opportunity, jeans manufacturers such as Lee and Levi ditched the shuttle looms and upgraded to the larger projectile loom, which were able to produce a much wider roll of denim for less cost and as a consequence, the quality of the denim reduced. At the time, as with most things, this didn’t have an impact on the jean buying public, as jeans were jeans. The old shuttle looms were in the main sold off to Japan, where they are still used in the same traditional way to produce denim, but were all but ignored by the western world.

However, as the rockabilly scene re-flourished in the late 70s and 80s many were looking for authentic 50s clothing. As such, Selvedge denim was rediscovered but no longer widely available due to the time consuming nature of its manufacture as much its cost. This of course made these authentic jeans highly sought after, which in-turn increased their price tag.

Fashion became big business in the 80s and again, never one to miss a trick, jean manufacturers soon discovered there was a demand for Selvedge jeans, so produced limited runs of them. This again made Selvedge denim available in small numbers and companies were able to up the price tag and make these jeans somewhat elite.

Nowadays Selvedge jeans are still produced, still in limited quantities and still on narrow Japanese looms. A number of specialist companies have adopted the practise of using original 50s designs and patterns in order to make these jeans as closely matched as possible reproductions. With its red contrast edging, which can be easily spotted on the out-seam of the obligatory turn-ups, making them a must have for any rockabilly enthusiast.

As with all items of clothing, jeans and their style are very much down to personal preference, but for me and countless other rockabillies there is something uniquely special about wearing a pair of Japanese Selvedge jeans. Even caring for them has its own special set of instructions (*see below). The fact they carry mirrored echoes of the 50s originally manufactured designs, whilst offering an alternative to the mass produced jeans readily available today, makes them highly desirable and in some circumstances somewhat collectable – not only to the rockabilly crowd but also the legions of denim enthusiasts around the world.

I’m lucky enough to own a few pairs of Selvedge jeans and can’t rate them highly enough in terms of giving that authentic look and feel. If you thought you’d found the perfect rockabilly jeans and as of yet haven’t discovered Selvedge, be prepared to have your illusions shattered as you squeeze your buns into the most rockin’ pair of jeans you’ll find.

Current retailers of authentically cut Japanese selvedge 50s style jeans include:
Rockabilly Rules – www.rockabilly-rebel.com
Freddies of Pinewood – www.freddiesofpinewood.co.uk

How to care for your selvedge jeans –

*There is a common consensus between wearers of Japanese selvedge in that less is more – in terms of washing them that is. According to the amazing Rockabilly Rules online clothing store:

You receive a special and unique “washing” by wearing a raw or even selvedge denim 6-8 month day-to-day without washing this pair of jeans. The first washing fixes the present look which means the colour wouldn’t change anymore afterwards or only extremely slow. Denim freaks advise to wash this type of jeans not at all. “Wear, wear, wear” is the motto. If possible to put hand on the pair of jeans: dry clean!

Another site, greasydenim.wordpress.com recommend washing them no more than once every 6-18 months. And if you’re worried about the smell they are more than likely to acquire it suggests to:

 

Just hang your jeans up and let them get some air after each use, and put them in the freezer every once in a while. Bacteria dead, smell gone.”

 

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Lisa Harrison
Written by Lisa Harrison
Lisa is the Deputy Editor of Vintage Life Magazine and Publisher at Dragoon Publishing. She is avid bookworm, collector of vintage homeware, loves travel, lazy weekends away and eats way too much cake!