Blue jeans have been in fashion pretty much since they were invented in 1873 by Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss, but behind the Iron Curtain, they flourished as an image of dissent and Western Culture. Although the Soviet Union banned the sale of Levi’s jeans—or maybe, in part, because of that—owning a pair of Levi’s became so much more than a statue symbol. Reportedly a pair of girls robbed two other girls at knife point for their jeans in 1963 and in Georgia, five Young Communists jumped a passerby and stabbed him for his jeans in 1978. Just what was it about jeans that made the Soviet Bloc so crazy?
The beginning of Jeans Fever was after the 1957 World Festival of Youth and Students. Moscow hosted and opened its youth to a hailstorm of Western Culture. From music to fashion, Soviet teens were injected with American pop culture. French Philosopher Régis Deblay would later say, “[There is] more power in blue jeans and rock’n’roll than the entire Red Army.” From Marlon Brando to Elvis to Marilyn Monroe, everyone who was anyone in the States was clad in blue jeans.
In 1961, two traffickers were sentences to death, and one of the charges listed against them was “trafficking in jeans”. Discos would not let jean-wearers in and schools frequently sent students donned in denim home. Austrian journalist Hella Prick wrote in ’79, “Soviet Doctrine had held that Western jeans, being figure-hugging, are a symbol of Western decadence, and thus to be avoided in the same way as pornography.” The government’s ethos was not passed down to the youths as they continued to hunt through the black market for a true pair of Levi’s.
The epitome of Western culture had sunk its teeth into the Soviet culture as young people fought for jeans. Wearing blue jeans was to wear a part of the American Dream, a bodily slice of a distant promise land. Those interested would often spend about 200 rubles for a pair of real Levi’s—equivalent to a month’s salary—whereas state-made trousers only cost ten to twenty rubles. People able to sew would try to make their own and boil them in an attempt to get the same fading effect, but an educated jeans-enthusiast would simply run a match over the jeans. True Levi’s would turn the head blue.
The thirst for blue jeans even damaged the GDR’s propaganda. While the State played images of the West’s debasement, Russian writer Sergei Boukhonine remembers, “All poor urban folks and union marchers wore the coveted blue jeans! Even the homeless people in the West wore them. So, the wheels of Soviet minds turned, these people couldn’t be all that poor and miserable if they all wore the pants which we couldn’t afford.”
In 1974, the GDR ventured to make their own jeans—conceding to the West—but as cotton was short, their creations were uncomfortable and ill-crafted. One reader wrote into the Soviet Communist Party paper Pravda, “When you can make jeans better than Levi’s, that will be the time to start talking about national pride.” The GDR relinquished to the West once again over jeans and imported a million pairs of Levi’s in ’78. People lined up down the streets of universities and companies for the opportunity to purchase the American trousers.
When the Berlin Wall finally fell in 1989, TV viewers saw young people jumping, tearing it down and dancing atop it as twenty years of imprisonment ended. And they saw them, men and women, young and old people, wearing jeans.
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A Brief History of East Berlin’s Weird Love of Blue Jeans; image Credits: The Levi Strauss Museum, @heddel on instagram