What started out as a patent for copper rivets on work pants in 1873 has over the last few years become one of the most iconic and influential garments ever created. The 501® jeans da Levi’s®.
This year, the flagship product of the brand celebrates 150 years of existence, still a true original item adopted by each generation in its own way.
It all started when Jacob Davis imagined a remarkable innovation for workwear, the applications of copper rivets on canvas pants. Noting the instantaneous success of his idea, Davis sewed matching rivets onto a jumpsuit and showed it to his grocery supplier, Levi Strauss. Based on that, the duo created a version of the jumpsuit, but using denim and duck canvas, a resistant cotton fabric. The piece was patented in 1873, when the 501® jeans were officially launched.
Although Levi Strauss & Co. was popular at the turn of the 20th century, its profits were at an all-time low. The Stern brothers, Strauss’s nephews, who took over the company after Strauss’ death, and his new head of production, Milton Grunbaum, focused on increasing the durability of 501® jeans at the time, based on customer feedback on the model. Belt loops, for example, were added to overalls in response to changes in men’s fashion and in line with the brand’s understanding of consumer desires. In 1925, the improved 501® Originals were responsible for significantly increasing the company’s profits.
Updating denim designs resulted in, over the course of the 1930s, denim becoming a workwear staple in the West. Later, a preference among rodeo pedestrians is perceived, as the resistant piece withstood great attrition. The brand saw a great opportunity to reach new audiences, investing in this scenario in its advertising. Vogue ran an article recommending the Levi’s® 501® Jeans to readers who vacationed on ranches, helping to increase the model’s popularity and credibility. Also, big movie names appeared on screens wearing the innovative jeans, like John Wayne, in 1939, who wore a 501® Originals with the hem folded in the movie “Stagecoach”. It was then that the fame of the piece and its way of wearing it in Hollywood began.
After World War II, the 501® gained even more prominence, ceasing to be a simple work outfit. The pants, with slightly narrower legs and without the back buckle and suspenders, were now seen as casual wear, making history in many segments. Soldiers returning from war, motorcycle groups, artists, musicians and the youth of the day embraced the 501® Originals for its utilitarian and durable style, and turned denim into a true statement of counterculture movements, reinforced by Marlon Brando in the film “ The Wild One (The Wild One), 1953.
In the ’60s, the 501® pants were a staple of subcultures everywhere, being present at Woodstock, the Civil Rights movement and protests in Vietnam, as well as in the UK, it was worn by Mods and Rockers alike, although there was rivalry between the groups. The model was also quite common to be seen in iconic films and on record covers, as it happened on an album by singer Bob Dylan. It was such a strong symbol of youth and the counterculture that it was even banned from schools, making teenagers even more want to have their 501®. both haute couture and popular fashion. Rock stars like Kate Bush and Kim Gordon favored the ripped fabric, while hip-hop stars like Run DMC and the NWA donned the dark, tailored denim. They’ve become so commonplace and beloved that tech moguls like Steve Jobs have included them in their wardrobes. And, in the same vein, the pants were preferred by bikers in Oakland and by Bo-Bos (French acronym for bourgeois-bohemian) in Paris.
In 1999, the 501® Jeans earned Time Magazine’s “Fashion Item of the 20th Century” nomination, and maintained its success as a global icon well into the 21st century. Today, Levi’s® continues to impact history with new creations that, often , derive from 501® Originals, and now it intends to bring a different look to the younger fans of the brand, building a new base without losing aspects of its heritage through actions that unite influential personalities of this generation.
And what kicks off the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the 501® Jeans are the releases of the films that build the “The Greatest Story Ever Worn” campaign. The action will bring together short films directed by Martin de Thurah and Melina Matsoukas that explore original and true stories from around the world involving 501® jeans and their role in countless historical, cultural and personal moments in order to inspire a new generation to write the next chapter.
“The Greatest Story Ever Dressed” presents the 501® as an ever-expanding trajectory, written and rewritten by all lovers of the model. “Few products, especially clothing, have been as consistently present in as many human experiences for as long as 501®. From their humble beginnings as work pants, Levi’s® 501® Jeans have become a blank canvas for self-expression and a timeless symbol for innovators who transcend boundaries of culture and class. This is an incredible moment and a milestone for Levi’s®. Through the “The Greatest Story Ever Dressed” campaign, we will celebrate the legacy of the 501®, its unrivaled reach and global relevance, and inspire the next generation to create new moments,” explains Chris Jackman, VP of Brand Marketing for Levi’s®.
The films will cover unbelievable stories such as when 501® jeans arrived in Kingston, Jamaica during the 1970’s and the country made it uniquely its own, or when a loyal Levi’s® wearer asked to be buried with his 501®, in addition to also wishing that the funeral participants were dressed in her. These shorts bring intense reflections that jeans do not just represent the story of one person, but the story of everyone. For the brand, the future is about securing the next 150 years of the 501® as one of the most durable, innovative and stylish pants ever made, adapting it over time to be part of even more stories.