Levi’s Vintage Clothing

501 – The evolution of the jean

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Take a look in your closet. No matter where you live, chances are you have a pair if blue jeans in there. You may not know that these pants – the ones you wear everywhere, from your job to your favorite club – originated with two European-born men living in the rough-and-tumble world of the 19th century Americal West.

Levi Strauss was a Bavarian immigrant who settled down in San Francisco during the Gold Rush in 1853 to be a simple wholesaler of dry goods: clothing, handkerchiefs, blankets, linens, purses and raingear, among other necessities. Jacob Davis, originally from Latvia, made his way to Reno, Nevada where he worked as a tailor for the laborers who lived hardscrabble lives in the raw new railroad town.

Their paths crossed in the early 1870s. When a customer’s wife asked for a pair of pants that wouldn’t fall apart, Davis made some trousers out of white cotton duck with metal rivets in the pocket corners for extra strength. They were soon the talk of Reno and, realizing he had a great new idea on his hands, decided to patent his new product. However, he needed a business partner to do it.

So he went to the one man he thought could help him bring his product to life and to the marketplace: his fabric supplier, Levi Strauss, now a prosperous merchant and philanthropist. The two men struck a deal and on May 20, 1873, they received a U.S. patent for the first blue jeans.

These first jeans – called waist overalls or just overalls – were made of 9 oz. blue denim which came from the Amoskeag Mill, in Manchester, New Hampshire, renowned for the quality of its fabrics. Sewn in San Francisco at a factory in the industrial section south of Market Street, sold by the small retailers of the West, the pants were a new breed of workwear and became the template for the brands which appeared when the patent expired in 1890. They featured a cinch and buckle which, along with suspender buttons, kept the pants in place no matter what kind of rough work their owner was doing. Within a few years of receiving the patent Levi Strauss & Co. was making rivited coats, bib overalls, vests and non-denim pants, in addition to the waist overalls, providing working men the clothing that made them ready to live in the harsh conditions of the American West.

Something else happened in 1890: the birth of the legendary lot number 501. From 1873 until around 1890, the original jean ws known simply as “XX” – an industry termn meaning highest quality and also the name of the denim LS&CO. bought from the Amoskeag Mill specifically for the new work pants. Then, about a decade before the 20th century arrived, retailers could order the pants by their new designation: “lot 501 patent rivited waist overalls”.

But what did the number “501” mean? Well, because all of the company’s historical records were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco, it’s impossible to be absolutely sure. One explanation is that because the patent expired in 1890, this meant that LS&CO. would no longer be the exclusive manufacturer of  rivited clothing. By giving products 3-digit identifying numbers, the company could make sure customers were ordering the rivited clothing made by Levi Strauss & Co. and not one of the new rivals.

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The number itself did have significance to the company. Any product beginning with the number “5” was considered the top-tier garment: 501 for jeans/waist overalls, 506 for the jacket, etc. There was also a 200 series for “value” or less expensive versions of these garments. But the reason the number “501” was chosen for the original blue jean was lost on April 18, 1906, when the Levi Strauss & Co. headquarters went down in the flames which devastated San Francisco after the historic earthquake on that day.

But you can’t keep a good jean down. In fact, the 501 has never been a static garment. In 1886, the leather patch – which up to that time had simply showed a few words about the product and the company – suddenly sported the new and soon-to-be-famous Two Horse logo. Its adoption was probably also tied to the impending loss of the exclusive patent, and the image of two horses trying vainly to pull apart a pair of rivited pants was meant to graphically illustrate the strength of the original blue jeans. It might have also been a useful tool for consumers who either couldn’t read, or who didn’t speak English as their first language. Need a pair of those famous rivited jeans? Just look for the two horses.

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The first design of the 501 jeans featured only one back pocket on the right, but in 1901 the second one was added. Why? No one knows, but it’s very likely due to changes in how men wanted to wear their overalls. They continued to be a tough workwear garment, but always with an eye on fashion. For example, belt loops were added in 1922, as younger men preferred to wear their pants with a belt. And it was the work of a moment for them to snip off the cinch and the suspender buttons, instantly modernizing their pants. In fact, some stores even kept a big pair of scissors at the cash desk to do the snipping for the customer.

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The one thing that has remained with the 501 jeans since the beginning is the Arcuate stitching design, first used in 1873 on the one back pocket and then given to the second one after its appearance in 1901. The Arcuate is yet another example of those features of the 501 jeans whose origin can only be speculated upon. In this case, it’s possible that traditional men’s work trousers did have functional back pocket stitching; perhaps to hold in a back pocket lining, for example. The Arcuate stitching, as far as is known, was simply an identifying design, one that was important enough to be copied by early competitors and then to be trademarked by LS&CO. to keep its association with the Levi’s brand strong. What it was meant to represent is also one of those historical mysteries that will probebly never get solved. Sewn onto the pants with a single-needle machine until 1947, each Arcuate reflects the skill of the sewing machinge operator, and each is an individual work of art.

Sewing the 501 jeans evolved along with the 20th century. When it was time to clear the rubble and rebuild after the earthquake and fire of 1906. LS&CO. management also built a new factory at 250 Valencia Street, in the city’s Mission district. The 501 jeans were made there from 1906 until 2002, when the factory was closed, and numerous other factories in California and eventually throughout the world have all contributed their share of the 501 jeans to local and global markets.

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By the 1920s the denim for the 501 jeans had come from Cone Mills in Greensboro, North Carolina. They made a 9 oz. denim that was just as fine as the classic Amoskeag denim. And then, sometime at the end of the 20s, Cone developed the 10 oz. red selvage denim which helped made Levi\’s jeans a legend.

This denim — given the moniker “01” — was made specifically and only for the 501 model jeans by Cone, with a red thread running through the selvage edge so as to differentiate it from the fabric they made for their other customers. Classically Shrink-To-Fit, the red line showed up nicely in the turned-up cuff, which was not a fashion statement, but the way you had to wear your denims until the fabric shrunk completely to fit your frame.

The pants continued to serve as workwear for miners, cowboys, lumbermen and other tough guys as the 20th century moved along. In the 1930s and 1940s Levi’s jeans and jackets also took a side trip as sportswear, when they were also worn by male and female “dudes” or Western vacation ranches. By 1937 two more innovations had been put in place.

One was the red Tab, sewn into the right back pocket for the first time in 1936 as a way to identify jeans from the competition (which was also using dark blue denim, a waistband patch and the Arcuate stitching design).

The other was the “covered rivets.” When the jeans were first made, the back pocket rivets were exposed on the outside the pocket was sewn onto the pants and then riveted. This was a great way to make the pants stronger, but those rivets were a little too tough for furniture and saddles, and consumers let the company know that something had to change. So in 1937 the pockets were sewn over the rivets: they were still there for strength, but covered to protect what people sat on. It was an innovation that pleased both consumers and the company.

This same year the suspender buttons were removed from the pants. Most men were wearing their 501 jeans with a belt, and the suspender buttons were becoming a relic of the product’s past. But there were still those holdouts who absolutely had to have their suspenders, and LS&CO. took care of them, giving\”press-on” buttons to retailers to hand out to their customers so they could retrofit their pants to accommodate their beloved suspenders.

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During World War II even more changes came along, but instead of updates due to fashion, wartime rationing called the shots. Raw materials like metal, fabric and thread were needed for everything from battleships to uniforms. All clothing manufacturers had to adhere to the new government rationing rules, and in the case of the 501 jeans, the rivets on the watch pocket, crotch and cinch went away. The cinch itself also disappeared, and so did the press-on buttons. The Arcuate design was painted onto the back pockets, because the U.S. government said it was decorative and a waste of thread. LS&CO. didn’t want to lose its famous trademark, so paint — even though it was temporary — was better than no Arcuate stitching at all. No one really minded that the crotch rivet was removed though, as that’s the one that heated up uncomfortably when you crouched in front of a campfire. In fact, when the war was over, the watch pocket rivets came back, but the one at th base of the button fly was gone forever.

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After the war was over, the company’s factories got back up to speed and the jeans that went out to the company’s retailers looked a bit different. In fact, the c1947 501 jean could be called the first “modern” 501. Slimmer in silhouette, with a uniformly designed Arcuate stitch — thanks to the new double needle machines — it no longer had the archaic cinch and suspender buttons, all of which gave the jeans a sleeker, streamlined look, perfect for the coming decades.

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The 1950s gave interesting new life to the jeans. No longer content to just put cowboys in Levi’s jeans, Hollywood costume designers searched the American zeitgeist and started to dress cinema’s bad boys in denim during this decade. Instead of Gary Cooper and John Wayne, the jeans were now donned by Marlon Brando, playing tough guys like Johnny, the motorcycle-riding anti-hero of the 1953 movie “The Wild One,” who, when asked what he was rebelling against replied, “What’ve you got?” Not to be outdone. the bad girls also had their day in denim, personified by Marilyn Monroe in “The Misfits.”

And interestingly, the decade\’s most famous rebel — James Dean — did not wear 501 jeans in his films. Costume designers put him in other brands, but when it came to his personal denim choice, it was Levi\’s jeans that he reached for.

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Over the next decade the 501 jeans showed up at protest rallies in Berkeley, love-ins in San Francisco and at a little music festival in Bethel, New York called Woodstock. The 1960s were all about the twin souls of universality and individuality, and jeans were the perfect expression of both. And true to their spirit, the 501 jeans evolved to meet the needs of a new generation.

The rivets were completely removed from the back pockets in 1966. Not only did they eventually wear through the denim, creating the same problems they had generations earlier, they just weren’t needed anymore. Bar tack technology had evolved to the point where tough stitching worked as well as tough metal. However, the rivets on the front pockets were kept on as a remembrance of the jean’s workwear origins and have stayed in place ever since.

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In 1971 a change was quietly made to the red Tab: the word LEVI’S became Levi’s, and the concept of “Big E” and “little e” was born, though it didn’t become the watchword for vintage until the Japanese started collecting the older models in the late 1980s. Designer jeans also emerged during this era and overshadowed the 501 jeans for a time, but the original roared back in 1984 with the famous “501 Blues” television advertising campaign in America, and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” album cover. As the millennium approached Time magazine dubbed the 501 jean the “Fashion Item Of the 20th Century.”

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From the 1990s until today, the 501 jean has shared shelf space with an amazing array of products which showed the versatility of denim. It’s easy to forget the blue jeans humble origins in the face of such modern splendor. But for many, jeans will always be about two immigrants who took the raw materials of the American West and created something that is as perfect today as it was over 130 years ago.

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Source: Levi’s Vintage Clothing