How to see vintage Levi’s 501s | FASHION AS DESIGN


I’m Tracey Panek, historian at Levi Strauss
& Company. Welcome to the archives. This is the place where the world’s best collection
of vintage Levi’s are kept including the oldest pair of blue jeans in the world, 501s. And I’m about to show you three unique pairs
of 501s. This piece that I’m going to show you…well,
it goes back to the 19th century. The woman who found and donated this piece
came to the archives several years ago. This woman who grew up in the 1940s in Southern
California, her name was Barbara. She went camping one weekend in the desert. She and her friends, they were teenagers,
they wanted to explore, they were being adventuresome. And they were near a mine, so they went in
as far as they could go and then, they stopped. She noticed the opening to a room. She went into the room and inside the room,
she found this piece. She picked out what she said was the best
of the bunch. There was a whole pile of Levi’s that were
in there. You can see on the back side that she needed
to do a little patching. We know it’s a 19th century pair of blue jeans
501s because there’s just a single pocket on the back side. It’s one of the most important elements in
helping us to date this. She brought them home, wore them to high school
for a couple of years and then she noticed something interesting on the inside pocket. This top symbol, which you may recognize… We now use it on the patch of our 501s. It’s a two-horse. It symbolized the strength of the pants. They were so strong that you could put a pair
of our 501s in between two horses and you couldn’t tear them apart because they were
that strong. And then underneath that trademark are the
words: For over 17 years, our celebrated double-x blue denim copper riveted overalls have been
before the public. This is a pair of them. And when Barbara read these words, she knew
she was looking at a very early pair of Levi’s blue jeans. You’ll see some stains on here that look like
they might be paint, but they are most likely drips of wax. In a place like Calico, when the mine was
open, a lot of the mine workers would have been working without electricity. They may have used a band around their head
with a little wax candle and then the candle wax would drip down. And that’s likely what you’re looking at. The front side of our 501 blue jeans has a
button fly. That’s what we had at the beginning and we
continue to use it on our 501s today. The copper rivets that helped strengthen these
pants are here as well. There’s also our tiny little pocket. It was used to hold a watch, so we call it
the watch pocket. Nowadays most people will put coins or something
small in there. No belt loops, that’s why you had the cinch
on the back. But there were buttons. These two here, and on this side, and that’s
so that you could add suspenders. They’re one of the gems that we have in the
archives that give us a sense for the kind of people who wore this blue jean. Not just the original wearers but in this
particular case, somebody who wore them after the miners. So this interesting lifecycle that the Calico
pant takes on. In 1938, we received an interesting letter
that came here to Levi Strauss & Company from a Levi’s fan and wearer who lived here in
the San Francisco Bay area. In his handwritten letter he explains that
in the back of his car he always keeps a pair of Levi’s jeans, so that if he’s stranded
somewhere, he can dress in them, use them if he needs to change a tire. He was driving one day and he noticed a friend
who was at the side of the road stranded and he decided to stop and help him. He only had two small bits of rope in the
back of his car, but he also had a pair of Levi’s 501s. And so he took the 501s, he fashioned the
rope onto them, and he used the Levi’s to tow the car. So look at the fade of these. These were clearly a pair of 501s that had
been used over and over again. You can see what the original blue color looks
like. So clearly they were not only used, but they
were worn repeatedly. Maybe even washed because they are pretty
faded. They have what we saw in the other pants. They’ve got a cinch, but these ones have been
cut off. And you’ll notice something that’s different
about these. Belt loops. Belt loops is something we introduced on our
501s in 1922 for the first time. He said he only had two little bits of rope
in the back of his car. Here they are. And he used them to tow. He said he had had the pants for 9 years before
that. We call this the Commodore. It dates from about 1944, World War II. It was found near a mining area in Southwestern
Colorado. You’ll see this interesting shadow on the
front side and you’ll see that same interesting shadow on the back side. And that is likely the shadow of a pair of
chaps that were worn over the pants and that would have been typical perhaps of somebody
who was working with fire. Maybe a blacksmith who needed that extra protection
of the leather on top. The little watch pocket that’s here on the
right side does not have rivets. Rivets were removed during the war by the
company as a measure to save metal and other materials during the war. The other element that was removed was the
copper rivet at the base of the button fly. It was also a way to save on metal, but there
had also been complaints by some of our customers that if you got down near a fire, it would
heat up in a very sensitive area. It actually happened to one of our executives
in the Haas Family and so the rivet was removed and it never came back. Anything in a 500 series was the best quality
that you could get. Originally in some of the early invoices that
we would see you would have handwritten out, “patented blue denim overalls.” It took a long time to write out. By 1890, we changed to an inventory system
where we used simply three numbers, 501, that identified this product. We’ve remained consistent in our use of it. Being able to know the context, to understand
the concept and ideas behind how a piece was created, how it was worn, helps to inform
what the new pieces are going to be like and always be rooted in the foundation and the
the stories and the products that we came from originally.

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