There are two stories to the legend behind Levi Strauss, the man responsible for the most worn garment in all the world…Levi jeans. Like all good stories, the lines between myth and fact are blurred, but the truth is simple: Everyone loves Levis.
The most famous jeans in the world might not have ever been, were it not for the California Gold Rush of 1849. German immigrant Levi Strauss had big plans when he headed out west with a supply of canvas, needles, thread and scissors, which he planned to sell to the miners out digging for their fortunes. But during the journey to the west, bored travelers bought Levi out of most of his supplies, leaving him with an abundance of canvas material and little else.
Ever the shrewd businessman, Levi planned to make tents for the homeless miners, but the gold diggers didn’t want tents, preferring to sleep beside their ‘diggins’ in the mud and muck. The one thing they did need was a pair of sturdy pants, as their city clothes fell apart from the constant wear and tear experienced in the abrasive business of mining. And so Levi gave the miners what they needed: strong, durable pairs of ‘waist-high’ overalls made out of canvas. And the rest is history…or is it?
The legend of Levi has been picked over and guessed at for over 100 years, and perhaps the truth will never be known. What we do know is that German immigrant Levi Strauss is responsible for his world-famous jeans, but maybe the story isn’t so glamorous. Maybe a fabrication just sold more jeans, or sounded better.
Unfortunately, we will probably never know, as the Levi Strauss documentation was lost in a factory fire in 1913 when the great San Francisco earthquake nearly destroyed the heart of the West Coast metropolis. Records were lost, and according to the experts at Levi Strauss, the Gold Rush story may be pure myth. Perhaps the story is a much simpler one.
Yes, Levi did own a dry goods business, and yes, he was successful selling canvas, needles, and thread to his loyal customers. But maybe the real hero is Jacob Davis. Who? Yes, Jacob Davis was a tailor with a problem. He kept ripping the pockets of his pants, and had the ingenious idea of putting metal rivets at the stress points, the pocket corners and the button fly. Unfortunately, Davis’ idea cost $68 to patent, an amount a small businessman couldn’t afford. So he contacted one of his fabric suppliers, Levi Strauss, and partnered with him to create the best invention since sliced bread (although we think sliced bread came after, and is pretty darn good, too).
Thus, on May 20th, 1873, the world as we know it changed… and for the better. Levi Strauss was now in the business of making sturdy workpants guaranteed to withstand the most arduous strain and stress, thanks to a new-fangled invention: the metal rivet. Metal rivets were like industrial strength staples that secured the cloth with exceptional strength to withstand the most rigorous abuse put to clothes.
But the story doesn’t end there. Levi became famous for his riveted pants (then called workpants) made out of serge de Nimes, a sturdy twill fabric produced in France. Shorten that French phrase to ‘denim,’ and now we’re in business. In 1890, the first Levi’s 501 jeans were stitched, and the model soon became the Levi’s flagship. These tough and sturdy workpants made working life a whole lot easier, but when the Depression struck in the 40’s, Levis survived only because of mass acceptance for everyday wear.
Times were tough, and mothers couldn’t afford to keep their kids in clothes. Kids are hard on delicate fabrics, and pants were ripped and torn, worn and shred before the summer months were over. And so, wearing denim dungarees (still considered workpants only) was the only answer for durable pants in the time of strict fabric rationing.
Kids experienced a joy unknown to anyone who hasn’t run, crawled, rolled and splashed with reckless abandon for fear of ruining their ‘good clothes.’ Denim freed adolescents from the proper constraints of careful play when the almost-indestructible denim dungaree hit the market.
Denim jeans and ‘teenager’ grew up together, literally. Before the baby boom prosperity of post-World War II America, youths were kids, and teens were young adults. But the disposable income teens were making during this financially abundant time didn’t need to go to put food on the table, so instead it went into music, cars, and most importantly, clothes. The teenager was born, and he wanted jeans.
The 50’s wouldn’t have been the same had it not been for the teenage uniform of straight-legged, cuffed hem jeans. Actors like the wild Marlon Brando and James Dean, the definitive rebel without a cause, popularized jeans for fashion’s sake, and teenagers couldn’t wait to slip into a pair of the indigo-dyed denim.
Boys paired their straight-legged denim with tight white t-shirts, leather jackets and army boots. Girls put sloppy oversized white oxford shirts, bobby socks and saddle shoes with their jeans. Levis became the symbol of America, its freedom and its strength. Even in the turbulent 60’s and decadent 70’s, the soft cotton comfort of denim was a must for casual wear, and the back leather patch with the Levi logo meant quality and fit, guaranteed.
Vintage Levis became a big business in the 80’s when everything that could be done to a pair of jeans was—stonewashing, acid washing, painting, ripping, etc. Nostalgia turned the traditional Levis into collector’s items, but Americans weren’t the only ones nostalgic for the days of sock hops, malteds, and rock and roll. The Japanese embraced the ultimate in American culture, scooping up old denim jeans from the 50’s. But how to know what’s an old pair, and what’s a new? Before 1971, the red tag in the back pocket seam of Levis was a big, capital ‘E.’ When the classic jeans market exploded, these so-called ‘Big E’s’ became an instant status symbol, representing a genuine pair of old vintage denim.
Another marker of classic Levis was the akamimi, or red-line. Levis manufactured before 1986 commonly have a red-line selvage (end of material) on the inner seam. Traditionally, the straight side seam would utilize the extra space of the white-edged selvage and be incorporated in the outside leg seam. A red stitch line was apparent in the middle of the white selvage, which gave the jeans the name red-lines or akamimis, meaning ‘red ear.’ In the wake of the vintage denim revival, Levis reissued the old dark denim style…so if you’re a vintage collector, don’t get fooled by a new pair of reissues.
Decade after decade, Levis remains a constant in quality, and a favorite for all generations. Levis don’t follow the fads…they set them with their classic shades of blue, from deep indigo to light stonewash. Denim is a friend, and Levis did it first—and, some would say, best.
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