The Levi’s® 501® jeans turn 150 years old! Conceived as comfortable and resistant in the second half of the 19th century, they went through the 20th century and became one of the favorite garments in the movie and music industries and among young people protesting the war in Vietnam. In the 21st century, they are still one of the most iconic garments for every generation.
The origin of the Levi’s® 501® jeans and the patent in 1873
The Levi’s® 501® jeans were born in the ‘1870s from an idea of the Latvian tailor Jacob William Davis, who was living in Reno, Nevada. As stated by Nevada State Museum, when asked to make a pair of work pants for a logger, he had the intuition to strengthen the stitching and the pockets where they were weakest with copper rivets. Levi Strauss, a German entrepreneur who had moved to San Francisco, California, was the supplier of the denim Davis used.
The workers who tried their luck in the Western regions of the United States in the second half of the 19th century needed comfortable and strong workwear, and the new pants had such a success Davis had to involve Strauss to produce more and protect his innovation. On May 20th, 1873, Davis and Strauss registered their patent, the number 139,121: the future Levi’s® 501® jeans were officially born. Initially, they were called XX since they were made with 9 oz blue denim fabric XX.
Panorama of San Francisco from California St. Hill, 1877, Eadweard Muybridge
The Levi’s® 501® history in the 19th century
The Levi’s® 501® history is that of the customs and traditions of the last 150 years. They were able to evolve from their role in men’s workwear, matching their suitability and aesthetics to the continuously changing needs.
In 1886, the well-known two-horse logo was designed, and the first two factories opened in California to bring the production of the garment to an industrial level. The number 501 has been used since 1890, when the patent expired, to identify Levi’s® pants while other producers started producing their own riveted garments.
Two Horse back patch
The Levi’s® 501® jeans, “the garment of the 20th century”
Over time, the leg became slimmer, and the back strap and the buttons for the suspenders disappeared, but their soul never changed. In 1901, the second back pocket was added, creating the five-pocket garment that today still means jeans; in 1922, belt loops appeared. Denim back then was rigorously plain color and selvedge.
In 1939, John Wayne brought the Levi’s® 501® jeans on the big screen in Stagecoach, while Vogue inspired women to wear their brother’s or husband’s pair on holiday (the first women’s fit was launched in 1981).
In the ’50s, the 501® jeans were worn with high cuffs, as showed by Marlon Brando in 1953 in the movie The Wild One and Marilyn Monroe, who used to wear them on and off movie sets. So, after the Second World War, the 501® jeans became the pants of the young generations who wanted to leave conservative ideas behind. Many people started to see them as controversial garments that suited only vandals, and some schools prohibited them.
In the ’60s, the 501® jeans were worn by counterculture representatives: Woodstock’s audience, demonstrators for civil rights, pacifists protesting the war in Vietnam, mods and rockets in Great Britain. Ripped, painted, or patched, they were used as a canvas to express ideas freely. In 1963, they appeared on the cover of the album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.
Over the two following decades, the 501® jeans became popular worldwide, from Japan to the Soviet Union, from rock and hip hop to technology and entrepreneurship. In 1999, the Times declared them “the garment of the 20th century”. Their market is still flourishing, and vintage pairs also sell like hotcakes.
Among the typical features of the Levi’s® 501® jeans, which were created before zip, there are still the button fly and the iconic Two Horse back patch attached to the original model, which became a distinctive detail of the garment that does not seem to show any sign of abating and is running to be a reference point for future generations as well.
The greatest story ever worn
To celebrate the 150th anniversary of its 501® jeans, Levi’s® launched the campaign The Greatest Story Ever Worn, in which different people worldwide tell how the iconic garment influenced their lives. As stated by Levi’s®, the campaign “celebrates the 501® jeans’ incredible past and its role in countless historical, cultural and personal moments in order to inspire a new generation to write the next chapter”.
The Greatest Story Ever Worn debuted during the Grammy Awards 2023 with three short films directed by Martin de Thurah and Melina Matsoukas and inspired by true stories. The first, Precious Cargo, tells how Kingston’s residents gave 501® jeans their distinctive style when the garment arrived in Jamaica in the ‘70s. The second, Legends Never Die, is about a devoted wearer who wanted to be buried in his 501® jeans and asked all his funeral attendees to wear them too. The third, Fair Exchange, tells the story of a Georgian boy who swapped his family’s cow for a pair of 501® jeans.
Ian Berry’s artwork for Levi’s®
As part of the campaign The Greatest Story Ever Worn, Levi’s® collaborated with the artist Ian Berry to tell 501® jeans’ history with the biggest denim art installation ever created, which is 10 meters long and 4 meters high. The billboard is a 501® jeans’ recycled pieces collage and celebrates the main communities who made the garment iconic, from 1880s cowboys to ’70s queers and ’90s punks.
It is a European traveling exhibit that debuted in Paris, in Place de la République, on March 16th. From April 17th to 26th, the artwork was showcased at the University of Milan’s historic Ca’ Granda central courtyard for Design Week 2023. It will be in Madrid, in Plaza del Callao, from May 4th to 7th.
Ian Berry's The 501® Fresco in Milan