Over 140 Years On, These Jeans Are Still the Coolest

Elinor Block
·5-min read

Levi's 501s don't need any introduction: Nearly everyone pretty much knows what the iconic jeans look like. But did you know the fascinating history behind the classic denim brand and how it became a household name? We're examining the label's origins as well as the stars who propelled the brand to be what it is today. Keep scrolling for a look at how the Levi's 501s became the wardrobe staple we can't do without.

The Story

The history behind the most iconic trousers in the world began when Levi Strauss decided to head west to seek his fortune in California during the gold rush in the mid 1800s. Thanks to a miner complaining about the lack of durability of his trousers, Strauss had the idea to create a pair of that would last. In the 1870s, Strauss created his denim overalls, which were given the lot number 501. They soon became the uniform of cowboys, cattle hands and miners.

The Rise in Popularity

While the garment was created in the late 1800s, it wasn't until nearly 60 years later in the 1950s that jeans started to became the popular item they are today. And it was all down to Hollywood stars wearing the trousers: namely James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. Dean's adoption of the workwear staple became a symbol of youth rebellion.

Similarly, Marlon Brando wore jeans in The Wild One. This new look worn by the young stars coincided neatly with the emergence of the "teenager," a term coined in the late '40s to show how young people had their own lifestyle and dress codes distinct from adults. It was also the first time postwar that young people had disposable income, meaning they could make more choices about what they wanted to wear. And it was jeans that truly defined the teenager of that era.

The Adverts

Although the emergence of youth culture propelled the brand to become popular in the mid 1900s, by the mid '80s, it was struggling, and sales started to decline. However, Levi's enlisted the help of advertisers John Hegarty and Barbara Noakes, who created the famous 1985 launderette ad to appeal to the MTV crowd.

According to WGSN, the reasoning behind the '50s-themed advert, in which a man strips off down to his boxers in order to wash his shrink-to-fit 501 jeans, was because the teenage demographic was obsessed with retro Americana. By the end of the '90s, Levi's hit a peak with sales at £6.2 billion thanks to its youth-orientated ad campaigns, including this one featuring a then-unknown Brad Pitt.

The A-list Fan Base

The ultimate approval for a brand often comes from A-listers wearing the label. But it wasn't just James Dean and Marlon Brando who have had a hand in giving the jeans their ubiquitousness…

There was Marilyn Monroe, who wore a pair of jeans on the set of The Misfits; Bruce Springsteen, whose Born in the USA album featured a pair of Levi's; Steve Jobs, who only wore 501s; and Alexa Chung, who had this to say about the legendary style: "They were the only acceptable style of jeans. The Levi's brand back then was so in touch with youth culture that it was hard to believe it hadn't been created in a laboratory by a collective of style bloggers."

The Legacy

Although Levi's sales started to decline in the early '00s thanks to a more competitive denim market, there's high demand for the vintage-style 501s. Last year, the brand launched a new line called Levi's Authorized Vintage. The range—a collection of jeans from the '70s, '80s, and '90s—was amassed by a tech worked called Jeff Fuller, who spotted the demand for vintage Levi's back in the 1985.

The brand bought the collection for an undisclosed sum in 2016, and now Levi's is reimagining the denim market for those who are obsessed with the vintage look. Whether that's using these jeans to re-create archived pieces or working with brands such as Vetements and Off-White, it's clear that Levi's will forever remain one of the most popular denim brands around.

SHOP 501s AND OTHER LEVI'S JEANS

Levi's 501 Crop Jeans (£95)

Levi's 501® Levi's® Shorts (£50)

Levi's 501® Levi's® Crop Jeans (£95)

Levi's 501® Levi's® Crop Jeans (£95)

Levi's 501® Levi's® Crop Jeans (£95)

Levi's 501® Levi's® Crop Jeans (£100)

Levi's 501® Levi's® Mid Thigh Shorts (£60)

Levi's High Loose Tapered Leg Jeans in Mid Wash (£100)

Levi's High Waisted Taper Jean in Midwash Blue (£60)

Levi's Plus 721 High Rise Skinny Jeans in Navy (£90)

Levi's Plus 501 Crop Jeans in Light Wash Blue (£90)

Levi's Plus 721 High Rise Skinny Jeans in Washed Black (£90)

Levi's High Loose Straight Leg Jeans in Mid Wash (£100)

Levi's Loose Straight Leg Jean in Midwash Blue (£100)

Levi's Plus 501 Crop Jeans in Dark Wash Blue (£95)

Levi's Ribcage Straight Leg Ankle Grazer Jeans in Darkwash Blue (£95)

Next up, the biggest spring/summer 2021 fashion trends to know.

This piece was published at an earlier date and has been updated.

This article originally appeared on Who What Wear

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