Creating a garment which stays relevant through generations is no easy feat, let alone one that lasts for over a century and a half. Yet one has stood the test of time: the Levi’s 501®. What started has a humble workwear piece has now become a wardrobe staple all over the world, and 2023 marks its 150th anniversary. In celebration of the iconic jeans’ success, Levi’s is launching a year-long celebration titled “The Greatest Story Ever”, tapping filmmakers Martin de Thurah and Melina Matsoukas to create three short films highlighting narratives surrounding the garment. Vice-President of brand marketing Chris Jackman stated “this is an incredible moment and milestone for the Levi’s® brand and through The Greatest Story Ever Worn campaign we aim to celebrate the legacy of the 501®, its unrivalled breadth and global relevance, and to inspire the next chapters”. Stay tuned til the end to watch the three films, after we dissect the history of the 501®.
THE ORIGIN STORY
The 501®’s humble beginnings started in 1873 with a man named Jacob Davis and his invention of copper rivets for trousers. Knowing the scope of his innovation, Davis took his design to none other than Levi Strauss, founder of the Levi’s company. The two worked together and quickly patented the copper rivets on a pair of denim jeans and officially launched the 501®.
PERFECTING THE JEANS
After the death of Levi Strauss at the beginning of the 20th century, the Levi Strauss & Co. company wasn’t doing too well financially. Strauss’s two nephews then took over the company, and with the help of a new head of manufacturing, the company decided to focus on improving the quality and durability of the 501®. The new business approach seemed to work as profits went up by the mid 20s.
501® FINDS ITS WILD WILD WEST NICHE
In the 30s, the denim trousers seemed to have found its market: the West. Famed Western film actor John Wayne was seen wearing the pair in the Stagecoach, inspiring cowboys and rodeo riders as well as Hollywood’s top dog executives.
THE POST-WAR BOOM
For many clothing companies, the post-WWII period offered great success in terms of image reinvention and sales profit. With a redesigned trouser, the 501® were no longer exclusive to the field of workwear, finding themselves in the hands of motorcyclists, artists and musicians alike, a popularity that was further cemented after iconic actor Marlon Brando wore the pair in The Wild One (1953). Though, perhaps Levi’s greatest achievement and testament to the future success of the jeans, was the fact that a new generation found themselves buying the 501®: teenagers.
THE 60S YOUTH CRAZE
The 60s were a time where youth subcultures flourished, and the 501® were right there by its side. Teens and young adults all over America were wearing the jeans to highly mediatised events from the Woodstock 1969 festival to the Vietnam protests. The 501® became a staple in film and became a symbol of counterculture, so much so that certain schools actually banned its students from wearing them, only adding craze and fascination to the phenomenon.
501® GOES GLOBAL
Well and truly installed as an item of popular culture in America, the 70s and 80s saw the 501® going global, whether it be infiltrating the Soviet Union’s black markets or becoming a staple to the Japanese’s ever-growing appreciation for all things vintage Americana. The 501® were found on every celebrity – Kate Bush, Run D.M.C, Steve Jobs – as well as on the everyday person.
A 21ST CENTURY STAPLE
Its success found at the end of the 20th century rolled over into the new millennium and the 501® jeans continues to be a high-selling piece, as well as the go-to everyday jeans for just about anyone. It now exists in several different editions, including the Women’s Crop, Skinny and 90s, as well as the Men’s 90s, 93 and Taper.
CELEBRATING 150 YEARS
In celebration of the 501® century-and-a-half anniversary, Levi’s is launching new editions of the pair, including a Men’s ’54 and a Women’s ’81 versions. In addition, the brand has asked filmmakers Martin de Thurah and Melina Matsoukas to recount “The Greatest Story Ever Worn”, through personal and historical tales.
Precious Cargo By Melina Matsoukas
The first film looks at the travelling story of the 501®, heading towards the soulful island of Jamaica. Arriving in the 70s, the Levi’s jeans became a hit in the Caribbean country, quickly adopting it with its own distinct stylistic take.
Fair Exchange by Martin de Thurah
Following the story of Jack and the Magic Beanstock, de Thurah’s film explores the choice of a young son who swapped his family’s cow for a pair of Levi’s 501®. While the family disapproves of the boy’s choice, the exchange is representative of something way bigger: the American dream.
Legends Never Die by Martin de Thurah
The last films recounts the true story of a 501® funeral. A fan of the Levi’s company had one wish on his deathbed: that he be buried in his cherished 501® trousers and that the guests of his funeral follow suit.
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