150 years of Levi's iconic 501 jeans: Everything you want to know about how it all started

Tracey Panek on the making of the legendary Levi's 501 jeans — the quintessential American classic

By Mariella Radaelli

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Published: Thu 23 Feb 2023, 4:07 PM

An American icon, blue jeans are possibly the world’s most popular article of clothing. They are woven into America’s identity and stood the test of time as they were invented 150 years ago by Levi Strauss, a Jewish immigrant from Bavaria who moved to San Francisco in 1853 at the height of the California Gold Rush. In the Golden City, he established a wholesale dry goods business that imported clothing, underwear, umbrellas and bolts of fabric. He sold them to the small stores springing up in the American West.

In 1872, Levi Strauss received a letter from a customer, Jacob Davis, a tailor of Latvian-Jewish origin based in Reno, Nevada. Davis asked the successful merchant to finance his idea of using copper rivets to reinforce denim working pants. Davis didn’t have enough money to apply for a patent, and Strauss was so enthusiastic about the proposal that he accepted it immediately. The patent was granted to both men on May 20, 1873, and the blue jean was born. It was an absolute novelty because of the metal rivets that strengthened the parts that could easily tear: The pocket corners and the base of the button fly. “Levi’s 501 jeans began as a tiny but innovative idea,” says Tracey Panek, historian and director of Levi Strauss & Co Archives. “Tailor Jacob Davis was sowing a pair of work trousers when he hit on the idea of taking a small bit of metal, rivets, and adding them to the pockets of pants. Soon, his riveted trousers became a hit. The 501 fit began as tough work pants. Some of the first people to wear the 501 jeans were immigrants to the American West from places across the Pacific and as far away as Asia.”

Labouring men loved their durability, also illustrated by the company’s logo: Two horses trying in vain to rip the jeans. “Our Two Horse Trademark was created in 1886 and remains one of the oldest continuously used trademarks in the world today,” says Panek. “It was created to distinguish clothing made by Levi Strauss & Co. from its competitors once the 1873 patent expired when anyone would be free to create riveted clothing. It symbolised the strength of the clothing and was a visible way to identify Levi’s clothing from other brands, especially for those who were illiterate or did not read English.”

We sat down with Tracey Panek to learn more about the legendary Levi’s 501 jeans, the quintessential American classic. Edited excerpts from an interview:

At first, Levi’s clients were miners, cattle ranchers and factory workers. Their denim overalls became a symbol of the Great Depression, following the Wall Street crash of 1929. Laborers often had only work clothes then. Life magazine photographers captured their struggle, and the powerful images helped the popularity of denim. What is the most remarkable document of that era housed in the Levi’s archives?

One letter, penned in the 1930s, was written by a man whose car broke down. All he had in the trunk was a pair of 501 jeans and some rope. With the help of someone who stopped to help, he used the jeans to tow his car back home. He was so delighted with the strength of Levi’s 501 jeans that he sent the company an enthusiastic thank you letter. A miner wrote another letter in 1920, who bought a pair of 501 jeans and wore them every day for three years, except Sundays. He sent his worn-out patched-up jeans to Levi Strauss & Co. with a letter asking for a new pair since he didn’t think they had lasted as long as he expected. We obliged.

A favourite jacket of mine from the Depression era came from a woman named Phyllis. Because her family couldn’t afford new clothes, Phyllis’ mother took a hand-me-down jacket and lengthened the arms to fit Phyllis, who was tall for her age. She kept the Levi’s jacket throughout her life, eventually donating it to our Archives.

Teenagers of the ’50s were the first to call the waist overalls “jeans”. What was the reason behind picking this name?

The word jean historically referred to a work fabric; perhaps that’s why teenagers began using the name. Whatever the reason, by the late 1960s, Levi Strauss & Co. swapped the word ‘jeans’ for overalls in advertisements to make it more relevant to the youth that was adopting blue jeans as its uniform.

Glamorised in films such as The Wild One (1953) and Giant (1956), starring Marlon Brando and James Dean, Levi’s became associated with the new frontier of teenage rebellion. They also symbolised non-conformism and the cultural revolution embodied by the Beat writers and poets who wore them a lot. Jack Kerouac’s jeans are still offered to memorabilia collectors today. Do you have a pair that belonged to Kerouac in your archives?

We don’t have a pair of jeans that belonged to Jack Kerouac, but I love how he wrote about his characters wearing blue jeans in his classic book, On The Road. “Dean was wearing washed-out tight Levi’s and a T-shirt,” wrote Kerouac, “and looked like a real Denver character again.”

In the 1960s, Levi’s sturdy, shrink-to-fit jeans symbolised rock-’n-roll freedom and liberation. They expressed the zeitgeist of the hippies. In 1969, at the Woodstock music festival, only jeans suited the casual dress code of the legendary event in Bethel, N.Y, where the young wore either blue jeans or nothing. From 1964 to 1975, Levi Strauss’s sales grew tenfold, from $100 million a year to $1 billion. Was that era the golden Levi’s era?

It was the era that Levi Strauss & Co. formalised its global operations, establishing an international division in 1965 with fans from Miami and Milan to Manila. During this period and later, Levi’s were forbidden at school and in stores in East Germany but were exchanged in the black market. They were coveted by teenagers like Patrocinio Angeles, Jr. in the Philippines. Patrocinio and his brother were the first people in their hometown of Morong, Rizal, to own a pair of Levi’s, and, therefore, immediately became the coolest guys in town.

By the ’80s, America and Europe were awash in designer jeans, a status symbol for the wearer. Also, ripped designer jeans would fill the window shops, a trend from British punk. Vivienne Westwood predated the taste for distressed jeans. How did Levi’s react?

The Levi’s brand has weathered many ups and downs, including the designer jean era, by maintaining its quality and classic fits like the 501. In 1999, Time Magazine named the 501 the Fashion Item of the 20th Century, beating out trends like the mini-skirt or designer jeans.

The first Levi’s blue jeans were known as XX waist overalls. Only in 1890, the number 501 was used to designate the famous copper-riveted waist overalls. Why did the company choose that number?

The number 501 was a lot number assigned in 1890, the year Levi Strauss & Co. was officially incorporated. It designated the company’s top-of-the-line, riveted product with the strongest “XX” denim. It was a short-hand inventory number that simplified writing out “Patented Blue Denim Pants” that appeared on receipts like an 1883 invoice to Watterson Brothers in Benton, California, that is in our archives. Items in the 500 series were top-quality products and included items like a matching Lot 506 riveted denim jacket.

How does Levi’s celebrate the 150th anniversary of the 501 jeans?

We certainly have a lot in store. It’s incredibly exciting! Having been worn by millions, from changemakers, risk-takers, experimenters, thinkers, icons and creatives, people all over the world have experienced all kinds of physical, artistic, and stylistic pursuits in their very own 501 jeans. To celebrate those stories and commemorate those experiences, we are launching The Greatest Story Ever Worn. This campaign is a year-long celebration that places these fantastic stories, inspired by true events, centrestage, delving into the incredible past of the 501 jeans and the role they have played in not only countless historical and cultural events but in personal moments to inspire a new generation to write the next chapter.

Levi’s garments are sold in more than 110 countries worldwide. How important is the Middle East market to Levi’s overall brand success?

Having begun in 1853 in San Francisco, it’s amazing to see how the brand has grown and expanded to more than 110 countries worldwide, and the Middle East is — undoubtedly — an important market to us. I visited Dubai in 2017 and stayed not far from the Burj Khalifa. It remains one of my most memorable visits as Levi’s historian. The 501 is one of our top-selling fits in the Middle East, and continues to resonate with young fashion seekers and style curators.

What are the secrets to winning customer loyalty?

The Levi’s 501 is the modern template for what everyone thinks of as blue jeans. Having started as an innovative riveted work pant, I think it has stood the test of time because of its 150-year history. There have been minor tweaks made, but Levi’s has always stuck to the ‘blueprint’ of the original, and we now have fantastic fits from a range of eras. I think what enables Levi’s to capture people’s loyalty is that the brand allows its story to be written and rewritten by the people.

How many vintage garments does Levi’s Archives house? And what are the most valuable?

Levi’s Archives chronicles 170 years of company history and 150 years of the 501® jean. We have thousands of vintage garments. Some of my favourite 501s are a pair of 1870s 501s, which include wax drippings from a candle of a miner, World War II 501 jeans worn by American soldiers who introduced this fit to people across the Pacific in Asia for the first time, and a pair of 501 jeans worn by a teenager named Greg, who had a pet owl and painted a psychedelic yellow owl on Levi’s and a matching owl on the car to drive to Woodstock. We also have the pair of 501s that Steve Jobs wore along with the pair of suspenders in the 1980s when he was helping to build Apple and jeans from the 1990s, which a young Filipino youth transformed with paint and shoelaces to win a Levi’s Denim Art contest.

And your best loved item?

Calico, an 1890 501 worn by a miner in the 1890s and later found and worn by a teenage girl in the 1940s, is still a favourite and goes back to a surprise meeting I had just one month into my job. It began with a phone call. On the other end of the line was Barbara Hunter Kepon, who, 65 years earlier had donated one of the oldest pairs of waist overalls to our archives, a pair named Calico that dated back to 1890.

She was going to be in San Francisco and wanted to drop by to visit the jeans. I jumped at the chance to meet Barbara, who was then 83, and her daughter, Timolin. As a teenager living in San Gabriel, California, in the late 1940s, Barbara explored the Calico Mine while camping one weekend. She discovered a room filled with jeans and took the best pair. She patched and wore them for a time until she noticed something interesting on the pocket and wrote to LS&Co. As Barbara shared: We went into the mine as far as we could without any flashlights. And as I was walking along the side, I felt cold air hit my foot.

I got down on my hands and knees and opened up a little opening, and inside was a small room and it was full of jeans that had been torn and abandoned there by the miners… I picked out the best-looking pair of jeans in that pile and took them home because it was fashionable for young girls to wear jeans.

I went home, washed them and wore them all the time, until one day I happened to notice letters on the back of the pocket… something about the jeans being made for over 17 years . . . I realised that’s a lot longer than recently, so I wrote a letter to Levi’s® and told them my story. I asked if they wanted me to send the jeans to them, and I did. The company then sent me two new pairs of jeans.

When asked if she was familiar with the Levi’s brand when she made her jeans discovery in the 1940s, Barbara replied: “Everybody knew the name Levi’s. Everyone in school was wearing them. I suppose that’s why I wanted to wear them.”

Barbara passed away last year, so our meeting years ago and learning how she discovered Calico is one of the highlights of my work here in the LS&Co. Archives.

What are the innovations of 2023?

We continue our focus on icons within building blocks, leading with 501 Jeans. It will include the 501 ’81, inspired by the year Levi’s launched first women’s 501 jeans, 1981. This fit showcases our highest rise and most tapered leg in the 501 family and comes in an empowering’ 80s-influenced fabric/finish range.

For men, we have the 501 ’54, inspired by the 1954 501 silhouette. It’s a trend-right fashion fit that expands our 501 family portfolio. It features a straight fit through the seat and thigh, sits at your waist and has a slimmer straight leg.

The modern and edgy finish story has core finishes paired with seasonal craft/repair/quilted patchwork elements for an overall pinnacle expression. We also aim to ensure relevancy with youth (18-30 year-olds) through expressive finishes, fits and fabrics, targeting fashion seekers and style curators through the year.

Will the brand partner with music celebrities?

We have had a long association with music. Levi’s has long been the unofficial uniform of musicians and festivalgoers, so it was very fitting that our Greatest Story Ever Worn campaign kicked off in earnest during the Grammy Awards.

Regarding partnering with celebrities, we work with Hailey Bieber, who was the first-ever face of the 501, and I’m delighted to say that we will also be working with Emma Chamberlain and Barbie Ferreira. The 501 has long been a blank canvas for self-expression, and as we embark on this new chapter, we are excited to see how the next generation around the world writes the next chapter of 501.

wknd@khaleejtimes.com

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