The Levis 501 XX jean is the most iconic garment ever produced. Never has an item of clothing inspired such adoration, commanded such high prices or been the chosen mufti for so many global arbiters of taste from Clark Gable to Marilyn Monroe to Johnny Depp. It is a totally unique product.
But even though the jean was a prominent feature of every youth cult since World War II, by 1985 it had been totally phased out as Levi's, underestimating their audience, went for the fashion market. Apart from the obvious indignation, this act of wanton abandon caused a worldwide feeding frenzy that pushed prices of original 501s into the thousands as collectors tried to amass what was left of a once disposable work item. Levi’s bought one C19th pair for $46,000. The line was recently reissued in all its glory under the collective title of the Levis Vintage range, boasting all of the companies great 20th century capital E classics, all lovingly replicated in exactly the same XX indigo denim with precisely the same details as when they were first issued.
“The classic Levi 501 XX is the staple item of any life well lived.” proclaims broadcaster and style pundit Robert Elms. “All other jeans are a facsimile, a fake or at best an homage to the real originals. From cowboys to rude boys they have always been a sign of sartorial savvy.”
It seems that the stylish and informed agree: Paul Weller favours the classic 1966 slimline Levi so beloved of early Mods; Suggs of Madness shows a distinct penchant for the 1947 XX ,The Strokes do a narrow ripped ’66 a la Ramones while Noel Gallagher claims the only labels he wears are Levis and Adidas.
“I remember my first pair of Levis 501XX, whereas I have long forgotten my first kiss” declares Elms. “As a small boy I knew that what you grew up for was your first pair of proper Levis. Shrinking your Levis to your skinny boy's body was a rite of passage that every kid with an eye for a bit of schmutter had to claim.”
But the trouser's humble beginnings weren’t quite so romantic. The unsung inventor of the Levi 501 was the immigrant Latvian tailor Jacob Davis, who in December 1870 was commissioned by the wife of an uncommonly corpulent woodcutter to make a pair of trousers that would contain her spouse. Paid $3 in advance, Davis used rivets he’d previously used to secure leather straps to horse blankets to fasten the trouser pockets and Eureka! A classic was born. Soon after, Davis approached his friendly haberdasher Levi Strauss and offered him half share of the business if he would cough up the $68 patent application fee, and the rest is history.
By the thirties almost every American owned a pair of jeans that, although popularised by the recent wave of cowboy films and their stars John Wayne and Gary Cooper, were still seen as work wear. By the late forties hepcats such as actor Robert Mitchum, painter Jackson Pollock and writer Norman Mailer were wearing the item out but the seismic shift came in the fifties when Brando sported his 1947 501’s in the controversial movie The Wild One. James Dean wore his just everywhere while singer Eddie Cochrane was rarely seen in anything else, causing millions of teenagers to adopt the item. “Levi's 501’s embodied macho cool then and now,” stresses writer Paul Gorman, whose book The Look is the bible of street culture and pop fashions. "It is an untouchable icon worn by Mods, skinheads, punks, rockabillies, painters writers and pop stars.”
But while Levis continued to storm the US through the 1950s, in the UK they were almost impossible to obtain. “I saw my first pair in 1947 or 48” remembers painter Peter Blake "but it wasn’t until the early '60s that I took possession of a pair. That’s how scarce they were.” During the '60s style icons Steve McQueen, Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol and John Lennon had made the 501XX their own, each doing something slightly different with this most versatile pant.
“That is why they work so well,” continues Gorman. “The 501 is an enormously democratic item. Paul Smith looks great in Levis with a sports jacket and brogues, as did the 20 year old Sid Vicious in ripped jeans, spiky hair, brothel creepers and a dog collar. It’s not just a pair of trousers because as you wash them they adhere to you and become a part of you and they can be worn with anything".
“You might buy these pre-washed jeans that come faded but you cannot beat a pair of jeans that you wash and fade out yourself,” opines Adam Cooper of the Covent Garden store American Classics, the UK’s main purveyor of the Levis Vintage range. “The more you wash them the more comfortable they become and the better they look. You cannot fake that.”
This week Levis released a short films based on their story and heritage. Watch it below.