HISTORY RUNDOWN: HOW THE LEVI’S® 501® BECAME THE MOST ICONIC JEANS

HISTORY RUNDOWN: HOW THE LEVI’S® 501® BECAME THE MOST ICONIC JEANS

by Juliette Eleuterio
Sponsored by Levi's® 8 min
LEVI’S® ©

Fashion comes and goes, everybody knows that, so when an item of clothing is able to stay fashionable through generations, it’s pretty iconic – and that is exactly what Levi’s® 501® has done. 

Everyone and their mums own a pair of 501®. It’s been an accessory to human history and pop culture since its invention 150 years ago. Brought into mainstream culture thanks to Levi Strauss himself and Jacob Davis, whose idea of putting copper rivets on the point of strain legit changed the course of fashion, the 501® has lived many lives, and isn’t going anywhere any time soon. 

LET’S GO 150 YEARS BACK IN TIME

Actually, let’s go back a tad more to 1853. German businessman Levi Strauss arrived in San Francisco where he opened a wholesale dry goods business – and no, it wasn’t focused on jeans, but rather clothing in general, blankets and handkerchiefs. 20 years later – now we’re 150 years from today – Strauss was approached by Jacob Davis, a tailor whose pitch idea was revolutionary. 

If you grab a pair of Levi’s® right now, and look at how the pockets are held up, that’s what Davis came up with, the copper rivet on the jeans’ strain point. That year, Davis and Strauss were granted a patent on this method of construction, and the first blue jean was officially created. And the rest is history – that we’re about to tell you all about.

LEVI’S® ©

REINFORCING THE BRAND WITH A LEATHER PATCH

You may have noticed that Levi’s® jeans are all decorated with a vintage-looking (because it is) leather patch on the back. The Two Horse brand leather backpatch dates back to 1886, just over a decade after the patent approval. Levi’s® did this because they knew that the patent would become public domain sooner or later – which it did in around 1890. The Two Horse brand leather backpatch solidifies the fact that Levi’s® were the OGs in the copper rivet game, with its “Original Riveted” wording and the exact date of the patent approval also seen under the two horses.

LEVI’S® ©

THE DEATH OF STRAUSS & THE CONTINUATION OF LEVI’S®

1902 was a bleak year for the company, which saw Levi Strauss pass away. His nephews took over and focused on perfecting the jeans, which were still being called “overalls” back then, to drive sales up. This included additions like adding belt loops and new sewing techniques, to improve the durability of the garment and to match up with what its customer base really wanted. Clearly, the two nephews knew what they were doing as the business started looking up.

LEVI’S® ©

THE JEANS FINALLY GO STYLISH WITH A WILD, WILD WEST INVASION

Before the 1930s, the “overalls” weren’t exactly synonymous with style, often being chosen for their functionality, but that all changed when the 501® found their niche: the big screen of Western films. Maybe it’s because of its horse leather patch or flexibility to actually ride a horse, either way, the jeans became the object of affection of cowboy and rodeo riders, specifically after being worn by the famed actor John Wayne in Stagecoach. Not only did the 501® infiltrate the Wild, Wild West, it was also introduced to a very powerful space: Hollywood.

LEVI’S® ©

BETTER THAN EVER AFTER WWII

During war time in the early 40s, Levi’s® made changes to its trousers to fit the criteria put forward by the War Production Board, due to the global shortage of materials, even removing the famed rivets. Post-WWII though, the denim brand reworked its jeans, adding the rivets back on. While the jeans started moving out of the workwear field in the 30s, the 50s saw the jeans truly shine, worn by all sorts of people, from artists to motorcyclists. Previously noticed by Hollywood, the 501® made its return to the big screen, this time worn by the icon Marlon Brando in the 1953 film The Wild One, further cementing the cultural status of the jeans.

LEVI’S® ©

THE 60S & 70S AWAKENING

Technically still called “overalls”, the 501® officially got the “jeans” name in 1960 in ad campaigns, though teenagers had been calling them that for over a decade. That wasn’t the only influence youth culture had on Levi’s®, becoming a major player in the popularisation of the jeans. From Woodstock 1969 to the Vietnam protests, youth culture was arguably for the first time in history being heard and watched, and what were they wearing? Yup, it was the 501®.

By this point, the jeans became a staple in counter-culture and actually became a symbol of rebellion. What seems like an every-day garment to us now was then considered offensive, which led to certain schools in America banning their students from wearing them. Looking back now, we know that was clearly an unsuccessful attempt to control the youth, that only added to the craze surrounding the jeans.

LEVI’S® ©

IN THE EYE OF CULTURE EVERYWHERE

While the 501® are an American-born product, by the 80s and 90s the jeans had taken over the world, with countries all over the world wanting to get their hands on a pair. This came with the push from Levi’s® to get its jeans advertised on television, including its 1984 “501® Blues” advert broadcasted during the Los Angeles Summer Olympics. 

Now, the 501® wouldn’t be considered an icon if it wasn’t being repped by music’s top dogs, which it was from Run DMC to Patti Smith. Then there were the  supermodels Cindy Crawford, Noami Campbell, Christy Turlington who wore them, Snoop Dog wearing the oversized version in his music video for “Nuthin But A G Thang”, all of the Friends’ characters were lounging in them… The list goes on but the main takeaway is that 90s fashion wouldn’t be complete without the 501®.

LEVI’S® ©

THE JEANS THAT KEEP ON GIVING IN THE 21ST CENTURY

By the dawn of the new millennium, everyone was aware of the 501®’s existence, if they didn’t already own a pair. It’s clear that the 501® are icons in their own right, being produced in different versions like Women’s Crop and Skinny, and the Men’s 93 and Taper. But its influence is even bigger than the jeans themselves, being responsible for the success of the entire Levi’s® apparel brand, as well as the popularisation of denim in fashion.

This year, Levi’s® is out there doing the most to celebrate its iconic 501® – you’ve seen the ads, you’ve seen the collabs with Nigo and Stüssy. We even joined in on the party recently, by hosting an intimate dinner for CULTED’s friends and family where Levi’s® impact was clearly felt: everyone was wearing denim.

Jack Chipper / CULTED©

More on CULTED

See: CULTED FRIENDS & FAMILY: CELEBRATING LEVI’S® 501®

See: LEVI’S 501® : THE GREATEST STORY EVER WORN

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