Brit Eaton brings love of old denim to Circus Circus
No tribute to the birth of blue jeans, that iconic garb of the American West, would be complete without an appearance by the country's fiercest fashion archaeologist.
We're talking about Brit Eaton, aka "Indiana Jeans," a hunter whose quarry is denim -- the older the better. He'll be sharing "Tales from the Denim Trail" at 3 p.m. Oct. 3 at Circus Circus Reno during Reno's upcoming Blue Jeans Jam.
Eaton, owner of a vintage clothing company in Durango, Colo., called Carpe Denim, is one of the speakers in the festival's Jeaneology symposium. The talks are intended to shed a scholarly perspective on the history and cultural impact of blue jeans.
Don't expect a fusty academic, though. Eaton is a true-blue adventurer, willing to climb, crawl, shimmy and step into nearly any space in search of sartorial treasure.
He spends about 10 days a month driving around in his Toyota Tundra on a denim safari in search of blue jeans put to hard use by cowboys, miners and railway workers, from the late 1800s to circa 1910.
"To give you an idea of how tough it was back then, there was a mine in Nevada where the average miner had a life expectancy of six months -- it was that bad," Eaton said. "There's another mining town in Nevada called Pioche where something like 45 people were killed by violence before one person died of natural causes. It was a swashbuckling, rip-roaring place where you went to make a lot of money or die trying. I think all of that is encapsulated in the blue jean."
Eaton's prime hunting grounds are ghost towns and rural communities in western United States. He combs through barns, cellars, attics, cabins and mineshafts looking for blue jeans with telltale signs of age. These include features like bucklebacks, suspender buttons and a single back pocket.
Eaton regularly braves the threats of rattlesnakes, bear traps and impending structural collapse. But he figures the risk is worth it, both for the adrenaline he must muster and the money to be made.
Eaton sells the loot he finds for upwards of $2,000, with his record being a haul of $50,000 worth of clothes discovered in one day. His buyers included private collectors, costumers for TV and film productions and clothiers like Ralph Lauren, Dickie's, The Gap and, of course, Levi's. The latter company is said to have purchased a pair of early Levi's from Eaton for more than $46,000.
Blue Jeans Jam
The Blue Jeans Jam salutes the invention of riveted denim by Reno tailor Jacob Davis in the late 1800s. The weekend festival, which is in its inaugural year, is the kind of celebration Eaton can get behind.
"It's a really intelligent marketing play," he told the Reno Gazette-Journal. "Most people really don't know the birthplace of the blue jean. It's an $88 billion industry, and so it makes all the sense in the world to associate Reno with what Jacob Davis did."
What Davis, an Eastern European immigrant, did was to use material supplied by Levi Strauss & Company to make a pair of work pants out of sturdy denim. In a stroke of genius, he decided to reinforce the pockets with copper rivets. News of the tough-as-nails trousers spread, and soon Davis and Strauss were in business together, making jeans and making history.
"What I like about blue jeans is that they are an example of that old saying, 'Necessity is the mother of invention.'" Eaton said. "What Jacob Davis did was to solve a need and, because of that, they embody the pioneer spirit. They're very American."
Eaton has traveled the world, and says you'd be hard put to find anyone without an appreciation for denim.
"I've said for years that denim is a canvas that paints itself over time," he said. "When you look at jeans you've worn a certain number of years, you remember when they got that paint splatter there, the hole they got when you went through barbed wire. Every pair is unique, like a snowflake. It's a form of expression."
Of course, some jeans are rarer than others, and that's what keeps Eaton on the hunt. He's a bold man but, like Stephen Spielberg's archeologist/adventurer Indiana Jones, he has an Achilles' heel. Jones is deathly afraid of snakes. Eaton has a phobia of something more insidious.
Nearly every promising site Eaton investigates has been home to rodents.
"When I knock on people's door, I tell them, 'If it's not covered in mice poop, I'm not interested,'" he joked.
Mice droppings are known to carry the often-fatal respiratory disease hantavirus, which is prevalent in the Southwest. In 1993, a tiny New Mexican community was the epicenter of an epidemic of the disease that claimed 84 lives.
Eaton admits that during the past 20 years he has been excavating for denim, he's had fits of paranoia where he's certain cold symptoms mark the onset of the illness. "I keep a hantavirus fact sheet by my bed," he said.
Danger is my middle name
While rodents are his bane, however, danger is part of the job.
Fashion archeologist is a calling so unusual that Eaton's exploits have been documented in the reality show "Ghost Town Gold" as well as in countless media outlets. It's a matter of pride for Eaton that a March 2015 story in Playboy on "Indiana Jeans" saw six pages devoted to his historic button-downs rather than the latest pin-ups.
The pursuit of denim can make the past seem alive, Eaton insists.
"I was in a mining town once and I went into this old house. It was abandoned in 1920, and it was so weird," he said. "The table was set and there were calendars on the wall, like the people were going to come home any minute. It was like an atom bomb went off and they were pulverized. It was very chilling."
Eaton hypothesizes that the man of the house discovered the mine where he worked had closed and the family rushed to another town as fast as possible where he could nab the next precious mining job.
Eaton values his job, too, but admits to an irony. Often, the very jeans he sells are used as models for stitch-by-stitch reproductions. This means that people can buy jeans based on those that are 125 years old for $100 rather than shelling out thousands of dollars for the real deal. Serving the fashion industry may very well put him out of business eventually, Eaton said.
Still, he still has many spots in mind where he suspects a treasure trove of riveted, stitched American memorabilia is hidden. And, there always are stories. Once, in Arivaka Ariz., he told an elderly miner he was looking for Levi's. He pointed to the hillside and told Eaton that there was a mine that collapsed there in 1902. Twelve miners, just in from China, headed into the shaft, clad in brand-new Levi's. None came out.
"I totally have other places to go," Eaton said. "I'm still just as enthusiastic as I ever was. I'm so addicted to it. There's just something about the spirit of the West that is captured in the blue jean more than in any other item."