Language in the 1950s: Dungarees, not blue jeans

When I was writing my 1950s coming-of-age romance novella Tomboy, which is being released today by NineStar Press, I had to pay special attention to language. The words we use tend to change over time, and nothing illustrates this better than the fluctuating popularity of “blue jeans” versus “dungarees.”

I can’t remember when, exactly, it came to my attention that “dungarees” was the preferred term during much of the 1950s, but the video on school dress codes that I shared a few days ago is one example that brings the usage to light. So when did dungarees become blue jeans?

Kids in dungarees, early 1950s. From author’s private collection.

Actually, they’d been blue jeans all along. In English, the word “jean” goes back to the fifteenth century and originally referred to a twilled cotton cloth that was manufactured in Genoa (in what is now Italy). It came to English through French, and we had all sorts of crazy ways of spelling it, including “Geayne” and “Gene.”

“Jean” changed to “jeans” in the mid-1800s, but it still didn’t have the meaning it does today. It could refer to any garment made of denim. Indigo was commonly used to dye denim a dark blue that did a decent job of obscuring stains and was relatively cheap, being manufactured by enslaved workers in the South; “blue jeans” came into use to signify garments made of blue denim.

In 1873, Jacob W. Davis and Levi Strauss patented riveted blue denim trousers, and within a few years “blue jeans” became synonymous with the garment.

As a word for blue denim pants, “dungarees” is slightly older than “blue jeans,” but not by much. “Dungaree” came into English in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century as “dongerijns,” an Anglicization of the Hindi word “dungri.” Both the English and Hindi words meant “coarse calico”; Dungri was an Indian village that gave the cloth its name. Dungaree gained popularity during the British colonization of India, when large amounts of dungri were exported to England. By the end of the 1860s, people were saying “dungarees” to indicate blue denim pants.

The popularity of “dungarees” and “blue jeans” have fluctuated over the years, with “blue jeans” outcompeting “dungarees” until the 1910s in print sources. Then “dungarees” began to climb, hitting its peak at the end of World War II. It remained the more popular word (at least in print) until 1956.

Why? That remains a mystery to me, though I’d guess marketing and the 1955 James Dean film Rebel Without a Cause played important roles in popularizing “jeans.” Up until then, wearing denim had mostly been restricted to younger kids’ raucous outdoor play and physical jobs like mining, carpentry, and farming. To the young rebels of the 1950s, “dungarees” would have been a word used by uppity parents who sneered at practicality and comfort. Embracing the word “jeans” was a way to distinguish the new generation from the old and claim the fashion as their own. At least, that’s my postulation.

Check out my other Tomboy history posts for more about the 1950s.

The words we use tend to change over time, and nothing illustrates this better than the fluctuating popularity of 'blue jeans' versus 'dungarees.' Enjoy a little lesson in etymology: Click To Tweet

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