How Levi's 501 jeans became a global icon, worn by Barack Obama, Marilyn Monroe, and Steve Jobs
Blue jean baby
Levi's 501 jeans are one of the near-universal symbols — like Coca-Cola, Chanel No. 5, and Mickey Mouse — that continue to shape the world as we know it, over a century after their introduction. But how is such an icon made?
We don't mean manufactured, in case you're confused. The indigo dye which gives blue jeans their distinctive colour surfaced at multiple locations across the ancient world. When it was used to dye sturdy cotton twills sometime after, denim as we know it was born. Given denim’s long history, timelines are sketchy; few can agree on a date for its creation. As the fabric slowly became a staple for the working-class in Europe, Levi Strauss, a German immigrant to New York, trademarked his rivet-reinforced denim workwear. The rest, they say, is history.
Since that fateful day on 20 May, 1873, Levi's jeans have conspicuously found themselves in all the right places. Initially donned by cowboys and blue-collar labourers, they became, by association, symbols of untamed Americana. In a relatively young country where battles against nature’s sometimes unforgiving forces proved formative to the colonial (we're not glossing over the genocide that haunts the USA's history) identity, Levi's denim represented American determination and toughness. (That having been said, the irony of their creator being a European immigrant is especially delicious in 2019.)
A few decades on, Levi's-clad Marlon Brando (creep), James Dean, and to a lesser extent, Marilyn Monroe would harness that visual power in their gritty, anti-Hollywood glamour phases. These stars not only ushered subcultural denim styles into the mainstream; they also added a coat of varnished glamour to the American myth of self-determinism. Through them, the wild ranchers and bikers, whose style was appropriated, were transformed into pop cultural heroes. Jeans had officially entered fashion's good graces.
That irresistible blend of film magic rooted in real-life adversity explains why jeans, including Levi's 501s, were glamourised as symbols of capitalism, and smuggled by teenagers in hotbeds of repression including East Germany, the Soviet Union, and Iran during the Islamic Revolution. 501s and their relatives — worn at that point by the vast majority of American youth — were charged with the expressive freedom of the culture in which they originated, and were thus, to put it simplistically, cool.
Later, Levi's were donned by game-changing titans of industry and politics, including Steve Jobs and Barack Obama. The former's casual manner of dress, in particular, presaged the era of the so-called 'anti-CEO’. In 2019, jeans have become emblematic of society's increasingly fragmented and informal corporate/political milieux.
So what exactly does Levi's 501s stand for these days? Most fashion academics agree that its authentic workwear roots, which telegraph grit and possible anti-establishment leanings, have a big role to play in its continued popularity. One wonders, though, what Herr Strauss would have made of his humble wares bubbling all the way up to society's top tier. Where Levi's jeans were once seen as subcultural signifiers, their current omnipresence marks the waning of traditional trappings of class and power; it's an overall positive for society, but leaves the cultural status of the 501 up for debate.
As their 136th birthday approaches, how will Levi's famed 501s weather — we're not talking stone-washing here — the brave new world that awaits them? As a backlash against mass-produced fashion builds — the 501 is one of the world's most ubiquitous styles, after all — and as the environmental impact of denim dyeing looms large in the sustainabilty conversation (for its part, Levi's has been experimenting with its Water>Less finishing technology for a number of years), one thing is for certain: the beloved, all-accessible 501 will still be a talking point for many decades to come.
Celebrate Levi's 501 Day at Raffles City Garden Court on 20 May from 12pm to 6pm, where you can enjoy special promotions, Levi's customisation service, and shop the exclusive #501 collection.
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