‘The fashion item of the century’: Levi’s 501 celebrate 150 years

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‘The fashion item of the century’: Levi’s 501 celebrate 150 years

Words by Kosa Monteith

The Levi’s 501 are nothing short of iconic. Few fashion pieces have borne witness to such major cultural shifts and historic moments as these trousers.

150 years of history. Levi’s have adapted, reflected the era and been embraced by successive generations of denim-wearers, tweaked and updated to suit each demand and social change. These jeans are characterised by innovations that spoke to the changing world, adjustments to suit the moment, and finally a passion for the vintage and collectible. By 1999, Time magazine could call them the “fashion item of the century.”

For 2023, Levi’s are going back to their extensive design archives and reviving a timeline of fashion, a wearable retrospective in their anniversary releases. From workwear to casualwear to catwalks, from American classics to global sensations, embraced and banned, always recognised. More than a pair of jeans, as they moved into casualwear they offered a world of possibilities for individual style. Even the 501 jeans aren’t one-size-fits-all. For generations, they’ve guided fashion and given everyone from rock idols to everyday teenagers a canvas for curating a personal look.

The most famous jeans in the world didn’t even begin with jeans – just a man called Jacob Davis with a dream of practical copper rivets on canvas trousers. It took a partnership with Levi Strauss and an official patent for the 501 Originals to be born in 1873. Solid workwear, popular for its practicality.

Revamping the 501 for a more practical and modern design, Levi’s soon made a very significant adjustment: the belt loops. Known as ‘The Looper’, this new design marked a change from the old suspender-wearing days. The Limited-edition 1922 “White Oak” 501 Jeans replicate the earliest form of what is now such a recognisable clothing standard.

Now, picture a cowboy. See the hat, the boots and blue jeans. Those are Levi’s. In the 1930s, Westerns were popular and Levi’s could move seamlessly between the practical use, such as women holidaying on dude ranches in need of a working-man’s trouser, to costume items for blockbuster western movie stars like John Wayne. The ‘30s also saw the introduction of the recognisable Levi’s red tag. A small feature, but a big part of the brand. Post-war cultural changes saw Levi’s slip primarily into the world of casualwear, with less focus on work and more on life, play and expression.

The place in pop culture soon led to counter-culture, such as featuring in Brando’s The Wild One (1953) and blue jeans being banned from certain schools. The 501 ‘54 highlights the trend of that moment: a slim, straight leg, tailored for walking city streets more than ranches or outdoors, speaking to the point where these jeans began to become synonymous with cool, desirable and youthful looks, resistance and self expression, beloved by mods, rockers, movie stars and musicians like Bob Dylan, featuring in iconic events like Woodstock and anti-war protests. At last, they were fashion sensations first and foremost, the jeans of a generation. This individuality and resistance saw them into the 70s punk rock era. Although Debbie Harry may have preferred her 505, the 501 and all its variations remained the signature piece of Levi’s. The 150th Birthday patchwork Levi’s 501 releases harken back to this, referencing the ‘70s trend for hand-fashioned, unique clothing pieces.

Throughout the era of the USSR, black market Levi’s were a hot item. Rare and glorious, only available via forbidden pathways. Too cool to resist. No substitutions. Levi’s were, for many, worth the risk. But there was another revolutionary piece on the horizon in the 80s. At long last, after more than a hundred years, we had a pair of 501 jeans designed specifically for women. High rise, tapered leg, without sacrificing the durability that sets the quality of Levi’s apart, this tailored fit shows the first foray into gendered cuts for feminine preferences – a new approach, and a move away from the OG masculine labourer market whence Levi’s came. The revived 501 ‘81 jeans released for this year’s anniversary take us back to that pivotal point where feminine bodies were considered in the design of the world’s most popular denim trousers.

The next few decades cemented Levi’s, and 501 especially, as the essential piece of cool-casual fashion. Ripped light denim of Kate Bush, the darker, crisp tailoring favoured by Run-DMC – could you even be music mega-stars without a pair? ‘90s saw a looser fit favoured by skater culture and grunge, the symbol of an alternative Gen X attitude, while ‘00s took us into the age of the low-rise, and always the thrift-store trend for reclaiming eclectic retro styles and making them your own.

The 150th anniversary revivals from critical points in the history of fashion capture the spirit of the time, the modes of expression people, especially the young, sought through their dress, and the Levi’s rise to a present day cultural juggernaut in 110 countries. Beyond utility, they responded to culture to become tastemakers. Now, new designs and old survivals means there is a world of denim, a collision of eras in any vintage rack, a hundred pathways to cool where we find and refine our unique styles, drawn from any decade.

Browse the Levi’s 501 range here.

This article was made in partnership with Levi’s.