They’ve been worn by prospectors and presidents, by preppies, hippies, yippies, yuppies and punks. They’re paired with everything from sweatshirts to silks, from T-shirts to tweeds in virtually every country and continent.
They are coveted, copied and counterfeited throughout the world. Levi’s 501 blue jeans may be amongst the best-known items of clothing on the planet.
The story behind Levi’s 50i button-fly jeans dates back to 1853 when Levi Strauss booked passage on a clipper ship from New York to San Francisco. He travelled to the rough American frontier to sell dry goods and clothing to prospectors and settlers who sought wealth in the California gold rush country.
Included in his goods were rolls of canvas intended for use in tents and wagon covers. But after a short visit to the mining country, he realised there was a better use for the durable material.
Strauss took his canvas to a tailor who fashioned the world’s first pair of jeans – first called “pantaloons” and “waist-high overalls”. His customers just called them “Levi’s”.
During the 1850s, Levi Strauss switched from canvas to a tough cotton fabric loomed in Nimes, France called “serge de Nimes” – a phrase that soon became “denim”.
The original 501s were sold stiff and oversized, and fit correctly only after they were washed and dried a few times. Miners, cowboys and farmers often made each pair shrink by putting on the jeans and dunking themselves in a watering trough.
When “Alkali Ike”, a Virginia City miner, complained that his pockets kept ripping under the strain of “nuggets bigger’n your thumb,” a local tailor, Jacob W Davis, began riveting the pocket corners for added strength.
Davis told Levi Strauss & Co. about the innovation and the company adopted the idea and acquired a patent in 1873.
Strauss added another trademark in 1873 when he stitched a pattern on the back pockets of 501 jeans. The pattern – shaped like the wings of a seagull in flight – is called a “double arcuate”. It has been in use longer than any other American apparel trademark.
In 1886, a leather patch depicting two horses struggling to pull apart the copper riveted jeans was added to the rear waistband. The patch was permanently affixed with orange linen thread and set the pattern of outside brand identification on jeans that became so familiar in the modern era.
The next significant change to 501 jeans came 50 years later, in 1936, when the red tab trademark was patented and added to the right-hand back pocket.
In 1937, the rivets on the back pockets were replaced with stitched bar due to complaints the company was receiving about the rivets scratching school desks, saddles and automobile paint.
When Levi’s jeans began to surface in some Eastern stores, the company placed its first national advertisement in Vogue magazine that stated; “True Western chic was invented by cowboys, and the moment you veer from their tenets, you are lost”.