It was 1872 in Reno, Nevada and Jacob Davis was worried. The Latvian-Jewish tailor had previously made mostly functional items, such as wagon covers and horse blankets for the workers on the Central Pacific Railroad. But this had all changed two years earlier after a visit from a woman requesting a new product: strong waist overalls, or work pants in modern English. They were for her husband, who worked as a woodcutter.
Davis purchased bolts of a heavy woven fabric, cotton duck, from a wholesaler. Then he began stitching. The pants were comfortable and loose-fitting, with a number of thoughtful details. He added plenty of pockets, including a little one at the front for stashing your watch. The weaker points were reinforced with copper rivets, the kind he usually used to fasten straps to horse blankets.
They were a raging success and soon Davis started making them in blue denim, too. His “reinforced jeans” were extraordinarily durable, gradually fading but never breaking. He literally could not make enough of them. He needed a patent, fast.
- The buttons that lie to us
- The incredible material under our noses
- The earpiece that could save lives
He couldn’t afford one on his own, and instead sought help from his wholesaler. Together they received a patent in 1873. The wholesaler’s name? Levi Strauss & Co. Today they make around 20 million pairs every year.
But despite this stratospheric success, the garment has barely changed. Jeans of all brands still have antiquated watch pockets, now too small to be useful, while fake copper rivets – a technology made obsolete by modern stitching methods – adorn the seams. Most bizarrely of all, the battered, worn-down look of jeans worn by generations of miners, cowboys, farmers and woodcutters is painstakingly faked before they’ve left the factory.
In fact jeans are an example of “skeuomorphism” (pronounced skyoo-o-morf-izm), a concept first invented by archaeologist Henry March in 1890. There are more definitions than you can count, but broadly it refers to the aspects of an object’s design that no longer have a function.
“What’s interesting to me is that there are traces in many objects that can tell us something about where they came from,” says Dan O’Hara, a philosopher of technology from the New College of the Humanities, London. Though they’re often overlooked, these hangovers from the past are ubiquitous.
Take suits. Oddly, two and three-buttoned suit jackets across the globe are sold with buttons that can never be fastened. It can be traced back to a very fat British king, Edward VII, who started leaving the lowest button on his suit undone sometime around 1900. In order not to embarrass him, the rest of court stared doing it too.
It’s not like we actively notice many skeuomorphisms – “We don’t look at jeans and say ooh rivets, cool,” says O’Hara – but they’re added because we’re used to products having a certain look.
Though electric cars don’t need cooling grilles – batteries don’t get as hot and they’re chilled in a different way – many have them anyway to avoid looking weird.
And no object is more guilty of this than the car. For decades, early cars were basically horse-drawn carriages without the horses. They kept their boxy shape, interior layout and just like old times, the power source remained firmly in front. They were even described in terms of their horsepower.
After a century of evolution they’re been transformed. Their current shape is largely driven by aerodynamics and the needs of the combustion engine, which is bulky and produces a lot of heat. Now as electric cars enter the market, we’re on the cusp of a new revolution. Forward-looking designers are thinking up cars that look futuristic and a little bit alien. In silent, engine-less cars, hoods aren’t really necessary and engines need not sound like gasoline exploding – how about a hum of tweeting birds?
But the public like cars to look a certain way. Though electric cars don’t need cooling grilles – batteries don’t get as hot and they’re chilled in a different way – many have them anyway to avoid looking weird. They’re purely aesthetic and often made of rubber. Meanwhile hybrid cars such as the Toyota Prius make artificial sounds to make them sound more like normal combustion engines.
At its most basic, the concept includes mimesis, or one material masquerading as another. This includes laminate flooring intended to look like the natural wood of the past, retro plastic hair combs dyed to look like tortoiseshell, and resin billiard balls emulating those made of ivory. This form is almost as ancient as civilisation itself.
Over six thousand years ago in the southern Levant, modern Jordan, the Ghassulian peoplediscovered how to work metal. Previously they had constructed tools, such as axes, from stone. Now they started using copper.
This new material was much more versatile, since it didn’t have to be painstakingly chipped into shape. It led to a whole range of elaborate inventions, from crowns to ornamental sceptres. But many objects created in this era retained a decidedly stone-age look.
“It has been true since the beginning of invention that new designs look like the old ones,” says Don Norman, the director of the Design Lab at University of California, San Diego. Then, as today, entirely new materials took a while to catch on. “If it doesn’t look the way I expect it to look, I have no clue what to do with it.”
But occasionally, copycat design happens almost by accident. In 1949, Frank McNamara was dining with clients at Majors Cabin Grill Steak House, New York. When the bill arrived, he realised that he had left his wallet at home in another suit. There are a lot of rumours about what happened next.