Levi 501 Denim Jeans
First published February 13th, 2006
Levi 501 - rebel without a cause.
The Levi 501 denim jean, whose design was originally developed by Levi Strauss in the USA in around 1872, has become the world's most successful manufactured article of clothing. First conceived as a sturdy working garment for miners in California, the ubiquitous 'blue jean' is now worn throughout the world from the mine to the boardroom, and is as much a symbol of the western lifestyle as it is a staple item in billions of wardrobes. Pop and film stars like Elvis Presley, James Dean, and Marlon Brando (not to mention the singer Mark Wynter with "Venus in Blue Jeans") stimulated the popularity of jeans as leisure wear, and in 1964 a pair of Levi jeans entered into the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.
Their enduring success rests partly on the charisma associated with their legendary American roots, but also on their practicality as a versatile washable garment whose appearance actually improves with age. The Levi 501 is nowadays just one of thousands of models and brands of jean, but it remains the classic version and the fountainhead of all its 'designer' imitations.
The history of the Levi 501
Levi Strauss is popularly credited with inventing jeans, but jeans and denim originate much earlier, in Europe. The term "jeans" may well be derived from "Genoese", a blue fustian fabric worn by Italian sailors. It was imported into Britain during the 16th century, and fustian is referred to in English literature by Thomas Hardy (in The Mayor of Casterbridge) and Charles Dickens (in The Pickwick Papers).
Denim may be an English abbreviation of Serge de Nîmes, a French twill weave cloth made from a mixture of wool and silk, and by the 19th century in England a denim fabric was being manufactured with a white warp and a navy weft. At around the same time, American weavers were making hard wearing denim-type fabric to satisfy a home market, replacing the original yarns with locally produced cotton.
A native German, Levi Strauss was already a successful trader when in 1873 he and a tailor named Jacob Davis patented a method by which the weak points of work pants - such as pocket corners and the base of the fly - could be reinforced by metal rivets. Soon, Levi Strauss & Co. was selling the innovative new pants to all types of working men, assigning to the product the number 501. The patent went into the public domain in about 1891 and other garment manufacturers began to imitate the original riveted clothing.
Denim jeans through the years
It was the Levi jean which dominated the market. For several decades blue jeans were regarded by comsumers simply as sturdy trousers, remaining a symbol of physical labour. The American cowboy wore them, and with the arrival of motion pictures in the 1930s they gained importance as icons of popular culture. The design of the Levi back pockets (first introduced in 1902) was adjusted in 1937 when they were restitched to cover the rivets to prevent them scratching furniture and saddles. The suspender buttons were removed, though the jeans were still supplied with a snap-on set.
With the arrival of the Second World War the GI's rugged but relaxed denim 'waist overalls' worn while off duty appeared in Europe, and at the end of the war surplus Levi jeans were left behind by the American armed forces. European workwear manufacturers tried to copy the U.S. originals but never seemed to be able to replicate the real thing.
After the war Levi Strauss began selling its products outside the American West for the first time. New rivals such as Wrangler and Lee began to compete for market share, and 'body fit' jeans were introduced. The 1950s fuelled the attraction of denim jeans as they became synonymous with teen rebellion in film, television, and rock 'n' roll - Elvis Presley wore a denim prison uniform in "Jailhouse Rock".
The association of denim jeans with non-conformity and youth rebellion grew still further when 'college kids' wore them during the sit-ins, love-ins, and civil rights and anti-war demonstrations of the 1960s - their protests rising up out of a sea of torn and faded blue. At the 1969 Woodstock music festival embroidered and sequinned jeans were worn to 'make a statement'. They became firmly established in the West as a social equaliser and symbol of carefree decadence, and as such were in great demand behind the Iron Curtain.
In the 1970s personalized bell-bottomed jeans flourished in the 'Flower Power' era with their bells and whistles, then went upmarket as expensive designs become the rage in fashionable places like St. Tropez. Jeans were no longer synonymous with youthful ideals but integrated into mainstream fashion. Even respectable adults wore denim. The ultimate manifestation of the adoption of denim by the affluent establishment was the 'designer' jeans wave which swept first America and then Europe.
A reaction came with the appearance of 'destroyed' denim in the 1980s. Chain stores and fashion houses promoted their own lines of jeans and endless new 'labels' were introduced. And there was 'acid wash', and 'stonewashed', and baggy jeans, and then coming full circle Levi launched a "back to basics"" campaign to reinstate the pedigree of the original 501. Jeans were bought by Yuppy-types who wanted to be seen wearing the right label, and by wealthy executives who enjoyed the idea of donning the original uniform of the authentic 'working man'.
The 1990s saw the neat and classic look, and an added percentage of Lycra to enhance fit and comfort. The popularity of dark shades of blue alternated with washed-out shades. And now? It's hard to imagine a world without denim jeans, and clothing manufacturers will doubtless continue finding ways re-market the original Levi Strauss concept, but they will remain direct descendants of the original pair made in 1873.