150 years of the best bum-friendly jeans
We see them everywhere, from old pictures of our parents and their friends to rock and grunge stars. We wear them everywhere, from university to work to shopping to aperitivos. We find them in every vintage shop and look at them with heart eyes. Yes, if you hadn’t already guessed, I’m talking about the Levi’s jeans, 501s in particular. On May 20th they will blow 150 candles, and they are still the statement piece for every generation from the 1940s on.
“The Levi’s® 501® jeans have remained at the forefront of the style zeitgeist throughout various decades and for good reason. Very rarely does the fashion world see a piece that has remained so relevant, seamlessly fitting into everyone’s closet regardless of time. Fused with the sterling craftsmanship and quality that the brand prides itself on, it is no wonder the jeans are beloved by all, from streetwear fans to traditional denim heads. As for how it looks? Its tasteful slim-straight silhouette fits all body types and exudes simplicity with a splash of youthful energy.”
This is how Bryan Ho describes the iconic Levi’s on Vogue, and it is true: they have been iconic from the very beginning.
Levis Strauuss & Co. was founded in California in 1873, by the Bavarian salesman Levi Strauuss and the American tailor Jacob Davis. Their idea was to create a practical and resistant pair of pants for workers, miners in particular. It’s in the mines, in fact, that most of the 19th century pair of Levi’s, today in the brand’s archives, were found. The shape was just like today’s 501s, but they had just one back pocket, a center back cinch instead of belt loops, and suspender buttons.
They had to be made with high quality, resistant cotton denim: thanks to the factory machines and the hard work of the people that make jeans everyday, Levi’s are built to mold to the body, being tight on the right places and loose where you need them to. The red line salvage is their fabric mark, along with the button fly: buttons are more resistant than zippers, and they also help the jeans to fit even better. From miners they soon became the uniform of cowboys.
But it is thanks to movies, western movies, that Levi’s jeans entered the star system, and then common daily fashion: the 501s had become “THE American jeans”. Every actor started to wear them, and people wanted to emulate: men wanted to look like Marlon Brando and James Dean, and the first way to do so was to wear Levi’s. In 1934, the first women's line was launched, and it contributed to free women's fashion, not forcing them anymore to wear only skirts and dresses.
Actresses too wore jeans: Marylin Monroe always wore them when she was off set and events, ‘cause they were super comfortable.
They soon became the jeans of everybody: punk-rockers, celebrities, geeks, student protesters for peace and human rights in 1968, school gangs (some schools in the ‘60s banned them), members of the LGBTQ+ community, and the black community. Down the street you could see whoever was wearing them: Levi’s knew no discrimination, they were the pants of the outcasts as much as they were worn by high society. The fashion system loved them because of how comfortable and versatile they were: the perfect statement piece for a uniform of any kind of aesthetic. People all around the world were mad about Levi’s: starting from the ‘60s, after Americans, and maybe more than them, Japanese people were the ones that fell in love with Levi’s the most, making American style and Japan’s long history of high-quality denim manufacturing meet.
Levi’s commercials, especially in the ‘80s and ‘90s were everywhere and iconic: Nick Kamen in the laundry in 1985, Tatjana Patitz and the cowboy in 1988, bad boy Brad Pitt in 1991. But one of my favs is for sure the “Be my baby” commercial from 1989: beside from the fact that I love that song (all of Levi’s old commercials played along the hit songs of the times), the man that comes to rescue father and daughter pulls their car with his using a pair of Levi’s 501s. This is actually a tribute to the Levi’s patch logo: if you look close, you can see two horses pulling both legs of a pair of 501s, kinda like contending them; it’s to show that, even if two strong horses pulled the pants apart, the denim would not break thanks to its strength.
In the last few years, Levi’s has been doing a lot of collaborations with fellow brands and designers. If I had to pick two favorites, they sure would be the one with GANNI and the one with Taqwa Bin Tali, a creative director and fashion consultant based in Paris. Both collections were launched in 2022. The one with Ganni was my favorite for the freshness of the looks: I love Ganni for its playfulness and summer scandi vibes, and another plus were the models, one of them being the amazing Emma Chamberlain. The one designed by Taqwa Bin Tali was beautiful as well: working with Diemm’s experts in craftsmanship, she created a capsule made of recycled denim, with shapes that tried to go out of the feminine line to make them more androgynous. The pieces were perfect both for men and women, and a plus is that, being a Muslim woman herself, Taqwa worked to make them wearable for those who follow a modest fashion style!
Enough for the history: before this article ends, I’d like to help you a little more coming into contact with Levi’s 501 daily. So, here’s a few tips to recognize every Levi’s era from the tags, how to recognize real vintage pairs and how to find the perfect size.
KNOW YOUR TRUE LEVI’S
There are a few signs that you can keep an eye on when buying vintage Levi’s, and Levi’s in general, approved by resellers and jeans lovers. When it comes to 501s, pay attention to these five details:
- The two horses patch on the back of the waistline is sewn along all of the four sides, the material is smooth leather, there are no grammar errors and the “Levi Strauss & Co” logo on top of the two horses can’t be missing.
- The fly buttons have got the “Levi Strauss & Co *Sf Cal*” logo carved on them, and the one at the top of the fly is bigger than the other ones.
- The tab on the right back pocket is sewed in place and has the Levi’s logo on both sides. On the pockets you also have to make sure that there’s a V shape yellow sewing.
THE TABS ON THE BACK POCKET
- Red tag: Levi’s has been putting this tab on the jeans since the 1930s. The red tab is still on the jeans these days, but you can recognize the vintage ones from one detail: the ones that were made between 1936 and 1971 have a capital E on the Levi’s logo, while the ones made after 1971 have got a lowercase e.
- Orange tag: Used in the 60s and 70s, it was introduced to distinguish the 501s from the new cuts that Levi’s was starting to produce.
- Black tag: these Levis’ are for the ones that don’t like ironing, as they are made of wrinkle free denim.
- Silver tag: you can find this tab on different shapes, but it is for sure the sign to distinguish the 80s and 90s cuts, loved by rockers and grunge kids, with a baggier fit, low on the waist.
- White tag: you have a rare one if you’ve got a Levi’s item with this tag. It could either be from a ’60 womenswear line or other items that are not made of denim.
HOW TO DATE YOUR LEVI’S
We all love a good vintage pair of Levi’s 501, mainly because the denim quality is better and the producing chain more ethical towards workers, as they come from pre-globalized fashion. I, unfortunately, don’t own yet any pairs of vintage Levi’s (and my mum did not take her old pairs with her when she moved houses… Yes, I know, brutal, but we had a talk about it, and she’s learned from her mistakes) but I have watched a bunch of YouTube videos to make sure I’m telling you the right way to date a pair of Levi’s.
You can date Levi’s garments thanks to the tag that is inside of them. The placement of the numbers and the shape of the tag depends on the decade the jeans were made. We know that things are considered vintage if they were made at least 20 years before the time we are buying them. But if you really want to know the exact year and month/week your pair was made, I suggest you to look up on YouTube: you’ll find a lot of vintage lovers videos that show you how to read all the different tags. It would not be easy to show you all in detail here, so I’m leaving a cute picture below of a few details that distinguish the different eras of jeans.
HOW TO FIND THE PERFECT SIZE
There’s nothing worse than falling in love with a pair of jeans that do not fit. And there’s also nothing worse than spending hours trying pair over pair on. A quick way to find your perfect size is to look at the numbers on the back patch: on the right bottom corner of it you can find two little numbers, one for W and the other for L. The W stands for waist, and the number indicates the inches of the width of the waist, while L stands for length, again measured in inches. This is one of Levi’s plus: not approximate sizes, they are made to fit your curves and end perfectly at your ankles.
If you, like me, are a tiny waist-wide hips-short legs girl, believe me when I say that this might be the best sizing system. You might have to go to the tailor sometimes, but the fit is always flattering for every body. A trick is to add 14 to the W numbers, so to get an European size number (for example, if you wear a 44 size, you should buy a W30). But I would still suggest you take your measures in inches and keep them in mind!
HOW TO PROPERLY WASH JEANS
Okay, now that you’ve found them, you need to wash them, and you need to make sure to do it properly to make them last. Here, again, I have tried to collect some information from experts. First, try to wash them as little as possible: the more you wash the fabric, the more it deteriorates. Some say that you should wash them every two months (yes, I know, EW!), but let’s say it’s good to do the washing every week or every two weeks, especially if they get dirty and maybe start smelling. When you decide to wash them, do it with cold water and by hand, or, if you use a washing machine, make sure to do a gentle cycle and use a gentle detergent. NEVER put them in the drying machine, ‘cause it will ruin the fabric: you should always air dry them, better if inside out, as to protect the color. When they are dry, you can iron them, again inside out. Et voilà!
I know you loved all these tips, but don’t worry, you can thank me later. We hope to see you babes all around Milan styling Levi’s: we’ll be there to spot you!
[All pictures’ credits, if not written otherwise in the pics, go to Levi’s YouTube channel and Instagram @levis]