The Long History of Jeans in Women's Protest

Jeans may be ubiquitous now, but there's a reason why the Denim Day organizers chose them as their symbol.
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Today is Denim Day, when people wear jeans as a token of support for anti-sexual assault campaigns. Why denim? The movement began in 1999, after Italy's highest appeals court overturned a rape conviction because the victim had been wearing tight jeans. As the Los Angeles Times reported at the time:

In its ruling, the court said: 'It is common knowledge ... that jeans cannot even be partly removed without the effective help of the person wearing them ... and it is impossible if the victim is struggling with all her might.'

This was not the first time an Italian court let a rapist go for the "jeans alibi." A similar case occurred in the 1960s, according to the Los Angeles Times report. Decades later, angered by the seeming lack of progress in their country, female lawmakers in Italy began wearing jeans to work to protest in 1999.

A woman in denim jeans in 1952. (Photo: Harry Poulsen/Wikimedia Commons)

A woman in denim jeans in 1952. (Photo: Harry Poulsen/Wikimedia Commons)

After a few years, the movement spread to the United States, via Los Angeles. In 2003, the Los Angeles Times reported that the City Council marked a Denim Day.

Although the jeans alibi might sound ridiculous today, jeans remain an apt symbol of sexual assault protest. One misconception about rape that activists say they're still fighting is the idea that revealing clothing invites harassment and rape. Women have the right to wear tight jeans or short skirts without having to expect they'll be harmed, or that their assaulters will get away with harming them. So the meaning of wearing tight jeans on Denim Day has shifted, from protesting one ridiculous alibi to another.

The meaning of wearing tight jeans on Denim Day has shifted, from protesting one ridiculous alibi to another.

Jeans have long been associated with rebellion, particularly among women. In the 1960s, middle-class American college students wore them as a "token of solidarity with the working class—those most affected by racial discrimination and the war draft," as the BBC reports. Generations before that, settler women in the American West wore them, even if it required some legal wrangling. In 1871, for instance, the Daily Alta California reported that Marie Susie, a female wine-store owner, had to apply to the Virginia City, Nevada, Board of Aldermen for the right to wear trousers. Considering the circumstances, such "trousers" likely included blue jeans, which Levi Strauss began selling to Western miners in the 1860s. Susie told the board she had been wearing trousers for years and once worked in California mines alongside men. She didn't want to be fined again, as she was in San Francisco, for her masculine dress, but it's unclear whether the Board of Aldermen approved her application.

Jeans may be ubiquitous now—and even the least rebellious of folks wear them—but their history means they can still be a rich symbol for change.

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