‘The 501® Jean: Stories of an Original’ Documentary is a Capsule of American History
A simple idea for a simple product would transform American style for a century to come. It was 1873, during the Gold Rush, that a tailor named Jacob Davis and Bavarian dry goods salesman Levi Strauss added rivets to the seams of denim jeans, reinforcing key pressure points in order to make the garment tough enough for rugged conditions. But few would foresee the style revolution to come. Today, the Levi Strauss name is so attached to American identity that it might very well be grouped among the nation’s founding fathers. In the century and a half to come, Levi’s denim would keep to its ethos of smart form and function, while letting aspects of style, in its ever-transforming nature, grow organically. Levi’s 501 is the American Blue Jean.
In “The 501® Jean: Stories of an Original documentary,” director Harry Israelson and narrator Ramblin’ Jack Elliott take us inside the historic Cone Mills Corporation White Oak plant in Greensboro, North Carolina, a landmark of American ingenuity where Levi’s denim found perfect imperfections in each new pair. Levi’s 501 was the garment of choice for the utilitarians that built this country, from rural miners, ranchers, and farmers to city folk on factory floors and construction sites. But it was the American cowboy that stood out most. When 1930s Hollywood pumped out reels of Westerns, the mass public found itself wooed by the glory and manifest destiny of the West. In mimicking the roughneck style of cowboys, American youth culture to denim from function into fashion.
The first Levi’s for women appeared in 1934, and it was just a year later when denim redefined the pages of passive elegance in Vogue magazine to displays of the empowered woman, foreshadowing the revolution in decades to come. The 501 solidified its icon status through the 1950s as Hollywood stars including Marilyn Monroe gave new shape to denim. In fact, it wasn’t until the 60s when Levi’s officially adopted the previously slang “jeans” to its lexicon. By this time, the 501 look had already spread across counterculture, from flowery West Coast hippies to gritty New York beatniks. “It was and still is the garment of the outlaw: the rock’n’roller, the biker, the punk rocker,” says D.I.Y. journeyman Henry Rollins. Women’s lib and LGBTQ activists from the 60s onward wore jeans, in part, to subvert gender norms, and to recast femininity to encompass toughness and determination. Levi’s 501 aren’t made for people who sit around waiting for things to happen.
“Wearing Levi’s was an act of rebellion,” says conceptual artist John Baldessari, looking back on the transformative figures with whom he interacted. Few pieces of clothing are so representative of such a vast array of American people. Fashion designer Mark McNairy agrees, “Mods and rockers, Beatle freaks, punks and skunks, kooks and geeks’, which pretty much sums up Levi’s.”
Get schooled in the history of Levi’s and the lasting legacy of denim in a three-part mini-documentary, “The 501® Jean: Stories of an Original.” Watch the short film at Levi.com, where you will hear from more artists, musicians, designers, and vanguard creatives on why the 501 remains forever their go-to look.