At the Levi Strauss and Co headquarters in San Francisco is the oldest pair of jeans in the world: the XX (then an industry term denoting highest quality), made circa 1879. It’s part of the company’s historical archives, a self-described laboratory of design innovation that receives a constant stream of clothing designers from around the world seeking inspiration. The company’s historian, Lynn Downey, makes it a habit to go shopping on eBay, seeking iconic Levi’s memorabilia to add to the collection.
The gold standard
The enduring appeal of ‘waist overalls’ – what turn-of-the-century working men called blue jeans – would once have confounded the world of fashion. First made in 1873, with a patented copper riveting process and the same stitching design they have today, Levi’s jeans were the gold standard for men’s work trousers, geared toward miners, cowboys, mechanics and others in manual labour trades where the durability and comfort of denim were a plus.
By the 1930s, Westerns dominated the film landscape, and so did the rugged, handsome cowboy – John Wayne, Gary Cooper – in Levi’s. They became cool. Lady Levi’s – the first pair for women – made their debut in 1934. The craze for blue jeans spread east of the Mississippi and travelled overseas with the GIs during World War II, when the outside world got its first look at the real thing as off-duty soldiers cruised around proudly in their American-made denim.
Something for everyone
Post-war prosperity saw blue jeans become a symbol of the leisured class, and Levi’s were sold nationwide for the first time. Zips were introduced as an alternative to the standard button-fly. With the arrival of 1950s ‘motorcycle boys’, blue jeans became seen as rebel attire, suitable only for juvenile delinquents and bad boys: Marlon Brando in The Wild One in 1953 and James Dean in the 1955 Rebel Without a Cause, in which most of the cast was outfitted in Levi’s.
Blue jeans, and Levi’s in particular as the original brand, have come to symbolize something for everyone: youth, cool, casual comfort, working-class solidarity, affordability, classic style. That chameleon-like versatility – the ability to be worn by supermodels and presidents as well as cowboys – is what has made them persist, says Paul Trynka, author of Denim: From Cowboys to Catwalks. In their recently published book on the cultural symbolism of blue jeans, anthropologists Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward found that wherever they went in the world jeans prevailed as a global norm; half of the first 100 people they saw walk by any street corner in any city they visited were wearing blue jeans.
Levi’s are now sold in more than 110 countries. Though the details of the product may change over time – button-fly or zip, dark denim or light wash, straight-leg or skinny – the aesthetic of cool, singular character (these are jeans that conform to your body) and quality (these are jeans that last) remains. Rihanna, Halle Berry and Gwen Stefani wear Levi’s, but so do skateboarders (Levi’s is partnering with Nike on a new skate-specific line of skinny 511 jeans). There’s denim made with recycled plastic bottles (in the new Waste<Less line) and jeans that fit women’s curves (the Curve ID custom line). Levi’s is jeans as individualism: wear them how you like. And as mass appeal: there’s a perfect pair for everyone.