Is there anything more universal than denim? It spans generations, pop-culture eras, occasions and moods. A partnership between Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss started it all, and by the 1950s and ’60s, denim had been incorporated into youth culture.

‘Crowds wore them through decades of activist movements – from beats to hippies to LGBTQ rights to the fall of the Berlin Wall.’ – The 501® Jean: Stories of an Original.

The uniform of protest? Not in SA

Jeans became a symbol of protest and activism in the United States and European countries, especially in the 1960s and 1970s ‘flower power’ era. However, South African youth wore school uniforms when they fought for their rights and their lives. On 16 June 1976, the day we commemorate today, students fought against a morbidly oppressive apartheid system in the Soweto uprisings (which later spread to the rest of the country). They fought and died in school uniforms.

Apartheid legacies living on in uniform

The youth of 1976 were protesting against Afrikaans as a medium of instruction at school. However, winning the victory of having English as the standard medium of instruction in schools didn’t erase the legacy of apartheid that lives on even post-1994. I think perhaps it’s our gratitude to the class of 1976 that made us somewhat complicit in a neo-apartheid schooling system. Fast-forward to 42 years later and you have a group of women in their 20s and 30s who are only now able to express themselves authentically through their clothes. The school system still policed our blackness in a majority black country, and our uniforms were designed to make us palatable in various shades of green, navy, blue or black.

Denim as an expression of freedom for a new generation

So yes, we got to university, we traveled, engaged in discussions on social media, and rejected those repressive uniforms. We made denim our staple; from low-rise jeans in the early 2000s to the ’90s-inspired high-rise jeans we wear today, and it’s all with much gratitude to the class of 1976, who created access for us to ultimately be a post-woke generation going through a process of unlearning.

South African youth today associate denim with freedom, self-expression, style and its connection to pop culture as a re-imagined socio-political symbol. It’s because the rebellion attached to denim as a textile for the youth is different during the 20-teen years to what it was before the 1990s. This era’s rebellion is more an act of wearing denim as a means of defining yourself outside of society’s boxes and binaries. We customise our denim, rip it and distress it, bleach it, and wear it an assortment of ways that each say something about who we are.

Why denim is a youth textile

‘Denim on Skin’ 2018