During our visit to San Francisco, we visited the Holy Grail of blue jeans: the Levi’s archives. A dream for those who like us are passionate about clothes. We savored the opportunity to see and touch so many items preserved and (alas) out of public view. In effect, Levi’s has preserved its heritage for generations, and continues to hunt down items from wherever they are in the world if they are part of the brand’s history. They even have a historian: Lynn Downey, whose job is to preserve items and expand the collection. She also assists designers of Levi’s and Dockers (Douglas Conklyn) in the use of vintage items for current collections. Because often nothing beats good old cuts and materials, or natural faded looks that took years to achieve.
The safe that contains some of Lynn’s treasures.
The origins of jeans
For those who didn’t know, Levi’s is indeed the brand that launched jeans in 1872, in partnership with a tailor from Nevada who had the bright idea but lacked the means to actually create the jeans.
Mr. Levi Strauss, or Levi to his workers, was a modern boss, with plenty of progressive ideas concerning business ethics, anti-discrimination practices, and an open line to his employees. A true “provider,” as Benoit might say.
The company (which Levi Strauss founded in 1853) was then specialized in what Americans call ‘dry goods’, that is hardware, clothes, and basically everything the forty-niners (think California Gold Rush of 1849) needed to sift their way to hopeful riches.
Miners at the mines in Salina, Colorado.
Today jeans are an everyday garment, even a fashion statement, but they started out as work clothes. Factors such as sturdiness, long-lasting wear, and comfort at work led to their consistent commercial success.
Catalog illustration from 1905
LS&CO is a company that has always innovated. From the beginning the buttons and rivets were stamped with “LS&CO” sometimes next to “PAT. MAY 1873 SF,” a clear reminder that the jeans were patented.
The first buttons, on the world’s oldest pair of jeans (1875)
With the expiry of the patent approaching, Levi’s also unveiled the iconic, engraved-styled image of two horse carriages, each pulling on one leg of a pair of jeans, with the words “It’s no use, they can’t be ripped.”
Lynn wouldn’t like this to be tried with a Ford Mustang.
In the 1930s, LS&CO homogenized its image, and it’s of course the cowboy myth that stuck, during a time when the USA was industrializing and marketing was making its first inroads.
Post-war Levi’s ad
It’s also the time when the Red Tab appeared, that distinctive little red label sewn onto the back right-side pocket.
Note the wave-shaped stitching, meant to symbolize an eagle. It’s as recognizable as the Nike “swoosh.”
The design with the horses was also initially lithographed inside the jeans, on the pocket linings, before appearing as a square leather patch on the outside to affirm quite visibly the difference in quality between Levis jeans and other future (and ostensibly lesser) brands (the patent expired in 1890).
A rock used for lithographic printing
Leather patch on the back of the first Levi’s
The 140-year evolutionary path of jeans
We often say at BonneGueule that each pair of unfinished jeans is unique, because it is shaped and faded according to the habits and particularities of its wearer. This is even truer when we get to the innovations that fueled the evolution of this garment: all the neat little tricks resulted from the way consumers adapted the product, to their jobs or their tastes.
The first jean was the 501, which was called XX up until 1890, a reference to the fabric used (from factories in distant New Hampshire). Besides, Lynn insists that in no way does denim come from Nîmes, France...):
There you have it: the world’s oldest jeans, from a time when semi-slim didn’t exist.
We discover in the design a tapered chevron-style stitched back pocket, as well as a money or watch pocket in the front. Note as well the presence of a strap on the backside for tightening the jeans: the first jeans were worn by miners. But cattle ranchers and farm workers followed. At the time these jeans were called “riveted waist overalls”, the term “jeans” coming into use only later.
In the end one would say clearly it’s a recent model, with a faded look similar to that which you’d find on a pair of high-quality jeans. It’s simply bigger and shorter. Here are some close-ups…get a gander at this incredible fade:
The money, or watch pocket was already there. At the belt level, you’ll also notice a button where the suspenders were fastened (there are no belt loops)
There was also a rivet to reinforce the fly, but that disappeared with time.
A practical tightening strap, but still with the option of adding suspenders.
Back then, good old selvedge fabric. On this photo, you can see the interior repair work, which was already there when Lynn finally tracked down these jeans. The fabric is nine-ounce, but at the time measurements were made differently, so it corresponds to 13-ounce today.
The two back pockets were added on. Some workers would customize their jeans with patches to reinforce the back. Ultimately, this innovation was standardized because it was so popular.
On these jeans, also among the world’s oldest, there are many patches.
Note that the fabric is so good that the crotch is still wholly intact: only the fabric that was subject to strenuous wear-and-tear had to be re-stitched.
Here the pocket from one pair of jeans was used to repair another.
Even after a century, and after having been damaged by the wearer, the fabric is magnificent.
Notice the nuances in the faded fabric.
Other jeans followed fast, notably designs that were wider at the bottom, intended for factory and mining executives.
In 1917, an underground mine worker bought a pair of jeans in Arizona. In 1920 he sent it back to Levi’s saying it wasn’t as sturdy as the older ones, despite being patched over to make it stronger. After inspection, what didn’t hold up were the patches, but the original jean material remained intact.
A little bit like Frankenstein’s jeans…the patches actually make them heavy.
The backside has fewer patches.
No, this isn’t the work of some out-there designer!
In the 1930s, a portion of the American middle classes discovered the comforts of modern life, nice furniture, pretty car seating and such. One problem: rivets tarnished it. Levi’s innovated further by keeping the rivets but hiding them under the back pocket stitching.
The riveting is still there.
Diagonal inside stitching, too: the golden age of denim!
With the Second World War came the war effort and rationing. Part practical innovation, part marketing coup: Levi’s replaced its decorative stitching with painted stitching to save fabric. This style stuck in the post-war period, for its patriotic dimension.
A little off topic: it was during the Second World War that minimalism in American fashion took hold. A minimalism synonymous with elegance and that put to good use the noble materials of Roaring ’20s Europe (check out the movie on Coco Chanel for a better idea of this).
But in the America of the two world wars, the response was to the imperatives of rationing, patriotism and mass production (the simpler an article of clothing, the easier it was to produce it). In any case, the twin visions of minimalism had much in common.
For the 60 years that followed, the firm adapted to evolving expectations and fashions followed by the younger generations: slim (1950s), boot cut (1969), flare (bell bottoms), (1970), etc. The big black spot was the jettisoning of the old-fashioned style of sewing selvedge in favor of more modern and productive methods, but resulting in a product of lesser quality. This era also saw the progressive abandonment of all the little details that had characterized this exceptional product: fine embroidery, interior rivets, reinforcements, etc. (check out the old pair of Levi’s hanging in your closet and you’ll see what I mean). During part of the 1980s, it’s even a product that underwent a wholesale disappearance! But the consumer as well as the brand was to blame.
But not all was lost: it was the Japanese, then in the full swing of reconstruction, who bought these kinds of machines: hence the incorrect term “Japanese fabric” to designate selvedge-fabric jeans.
Japanese poster (probably recent) showing a loom for selvedge-fabric.
Thus the fabrics used were of lesser, thinner quality: they called this denim “light” or “slack.” Also in the 1960s came the mean villain stonewashes – pale imitations of what you could get by buying your jeans in their original state and wearing them for a few months.
I remember the labels on my Levi’s circa 2005 telling me to wash them in order to make them more attractive. This was usually the end result.
Getting back to the beginning of this article and the 501 jeans and the archives, tell me that it’s normal that a jean that has undergone so much retains such magnificence, in a time when a pair of jeans recently purchased can barely hold its own after just three washes…the fades having completely washed out.
We’d have to wait until the third millennium for LS&CO to put the selvedge back into its Levi’s Vintage and Levi’s Made & Crafted ranges, as well as certain makes from the Red Tab range. Today we’re finding once again some interesting items from Red Tab and Made & Crafted, following a long haul across the desert made out of love for the ‘ole blue fabric. But I don’t want to stigmatize the brand, because it’s developing nicely right now.
For the moment, we would rather focus our attention on those who have responded to the demand for selvedge jeans beforehand and with a better price-quality ratio (I think you’re starting to recognize them)
And here we are again in 2012!
What about the first chinos?
At the beginning of the 20th century, LS&CO, conscious that not all their customers needed super-sturdy work wear developed pants meant for supervisors and office staff: the khaki (also called the chino) was born in 1905. The first chinos were made in a heavy cotton called duck; its texture is similar to that of jeans.
a page from the Levi’s catalog selling khaki pants
This is the oldest pair of chinos in existence. It was found in a cellar, covered in mud. Note the ‘chino’ cut with straights pockets on the sides and not the front as in jeans.
the brand’s logo on the inside
close up of the fabric: very thick duck. The number of stitches per inch is amazing: this is a quality not produces today anymore for financial reasons, even in luxury items
it had already been mended at the time.
the clock pocket: note the attention to detail
it is even lined with corduroy
Until the 80s, chinos did not play a big part in the products offered by the red label company. However, the trend returns in the 80s: active young people are missing an item half-way between the office suit pants and the week-end jeans. Levi’s launches Dockers, inspired by nautical products.
One of the first advertisements for Dockers
Big success for the brand: at the beginning of the 21st century almost all Americans possess a pair. However, sales have gone down since and, until recently, Dockers found it difficult to raise the interest of the under-thirties; it was satisfied with its major presence in the closets of the bay-boomers, slowly approaching retirement age.
I hope that you enjoyed this travel down time.
Thanks again to Lynn for having opened the doors to her safe and for her last book which I read with great pleasure.