The History of Levi's 501s

Written by nina makofsky
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These days, Levi's 501s are considered the go-to brand and style for basic jeans. They have long since evolved from their cowboy roots, with cuts and washes geared for women and children as well as men. However, they have retained much of the materials and handiwork that were first used by Levi Strauss over a century ago.


In the mid-1800s, a German immigrant named Levi Strauss came to San Francisco. He earned the first chunk of his fortune creating and refining speciality trousers that he sold to miners, who required clothing made of tougher material and better construction to withstand rough work conditions. Strauss hired a man named Jacob Davis to assist him. Davis arrived upon the landmark idea of using metal rivets to attach pockets and keep them from ripping and splitting. These rivets became the trademark feature of Levi's 501 jeans. In fact, when the men got their patent for these newfangled trousers with rivets, it was assigned lot number 501.


It wasn't just the rivets or the tougher fabric that earned Levi's 501s a place in history. What was essentially a garment for people who did hard physical labour gradually evolved into a piece of clothing for leisure, thanks to people in the military who wore them off the battlefield. Up to this point, the Levi Strauss company was still calling its invention waist overalls or just overalls.


The needs of the people in the military soon inspired some changes in the design of Levi's 501s. The leather patch, a symbol of the toughness of denim, remained, but the manufacturers eliminated the crotch rivet and added rivets to the back watch pocket. The signature red tab remained, but the word Levi's was now stitched on both sides rather than just one.


It took the 1950s and the Hollywood image of the rebel, personified by James Dean, to transform Levi's 501 from a utilitarian garment to one with symbolic power. James Dean added a white undershirt and a black leather jacket, giving his Levi's 501s a slouchy cool. Others such as Jack Nicholson and Elvis Presley took their cue from this image and donned Levi's 501s to express their questioning of authority. It wasn't long before teenagers embraced the style. By 1960, the Levi Strauss corporation had dropped the word overalls from their advertising and were using the word jeans.

Fun Fact

These days, Levi's 501s have hit cult status. People auction off vintage pairs on eBay for upward of £130, and others have collections of different styles from various eras. Levi Strauss has had to be aggressive in fighting off bootleggers that pirate the Levi's 501 brand with inferior styles. Experts know how to distinguish the trademark rivets, stitches, tags, cuts, fabric quality and rinses.

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