The introduction of denim must have seemed like a godsend to country folks after struggling so long with the stretching and shrinking of homespun clothing. Denim, typically dyed blue, became normal dress for men and boys. Most often, it took the form of bib overalls with a chambray shirt (also cotton) and, for winter, a denim barn coat (finger length) lined with flannel.
Except in winter, overalls were not “over” much of anything in the heat of the South. Then chambray was replaced by flannel for shirts and some men swapped cotton undershorts for union suits, one-piece long johns with a “trap door” in the rear for times when nature called. Some of them retained their long johns for pajamas at night in cold rooms with high ceilings designed to temper summer heat but not winter cold.
Country boys were dressed much like their fathers. Most of the boys in my first two schools — Marietta two-room school in Toombs County and Cobbtown School in the town of that name — wore overalls. When I transferred to the school in Lyons in the middle of the fourth grade, I learned that the “town boys” did not wear overalls and rather looked down on the country boys who did.
I liked overalls. By summertime, worn thin by work and play, they were cool. Worn without shirt and shoes, and maybe patched or torn, they were well-ventilated. However, faced with matters of style and social pressure, in time I switched to “slacks.” I hated those things because I was skinny and had to cinch a belt on tight to keep them from sliding off my hips. In summertime, I really missed my overalls.
I also liked overalls because of their pockets. Those on the front and rear at britches level were roomy, just right for a knife, pecans, a slingshot and rocks, interesting things found along the way, the handkerchief required by Momma, containers of hooks and sinkers while fishing, the necessities of life for a country boy. The bib pocket was handy and more secure than the others. After overalls, it was a long time before cargo pants came along to fill my need for pockets.
In the late 40s, there came a huge revolution in blue jeans. Before, there had been plain denim work pants called Dungarees, but these were cowboy style britches, tight in the legs and fitted at the hips and butt. Maybe their origin was the movies. John Wayne wore jeans turned up at the ankle in his early movies and our Levis looked a lot like them. But ours had pockets and his did not. (Why do movie wardrobe people sew up pants without pockets?)
There was a difference with the second blue denim revolution. Almost all young people wore them, often turned up a couple of inches at the ankle. A very few had too much body to stuff into skinny jeans. Many girls adopted jeans for casual wear but not school. Young males, being young males, appreciated this change. Not every girl was made for jeans, but for some the words of a country music song fit well, “Goodness, gracious, baby’s got her blue jeans on.”
Blue jeans had their down sides. When new, eight-ounce denim cloth is stiff, unyieldingly so from top to bottom. In time, they became softer, more comfortable, but that came after weeks of wearing and washing. In a time when prosperity was not defined in the way that it is now, people did not “distress” denim by heavy washing or tearing before the garment was made. Even now, I find the sight of such mutilations disturbing.
Another problem was tight pockets front and rear. Getting anything into or out of any pocket required a conscious act of will.
I met Remer Tyson from Bulloch County during my junior year in the Henry W. Grady School of Journalism at the University of Georgia. Working together on the staff of the The Red & Black in 1956, we formed a friendship that yet endures.
Whether as a matter of comfort or personal insouciance, his jeans were the most worn and battered that I ever saw before the modern style of intentional destruction. One pair had no rear pocket on the right side. This had nothing to do with lack of intelligence or drive.
He retired in Zimbabwe after a distinguished career in journalism that ended with the position of Africa Bureau chief for the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain. He certainly did not think of himself as a trendsetter in style with his naturally distressed blue jeans.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.