The riveting history of Levi’s jeans

The archetypal American brand has been producing denim for decades. Here, we give you the skinny on your skinnies, and the 411 on your 501s...

There are certain companies that are so ubiquitous, so monolithic, and so iconic that they overshadow any product they may be selling. You say ‘hot tub’ and you think ‘Jacuzzi’. You say ‘marker pen’ and you think ‘Sharpie’. You say ‘vacuum cleaner’ and you think ‘Hoover’.

But, perhaps the most stylish of these product-embodying brands comes in the form of a pair of denim jeans. Or, as we’re more likely to say, Levi’s.

The riveting history of Levi’s jeans

But how has this storied brand reached such a level of boot-cut, low-rise, dyed-denim popularity? We’ve taken a walk back through the brand’s archives to discover how they and their classic 501s conquered pop culture and the public consciousness.

The making of Levi’s

The history of Levi’s closely follows that of the United States as a whole. In fact, the two tales are copper-riveted together more strongly than a pair of Levi’s own jeans — and are just as indicative of the all-American dream.

In 1853, Levi Strauss moved to San Francisco from his native Germany and started selling clothes, belts and handkerchiefs. And, as the country came out of the other side of its Civil War, and started to industrialise, Strauss filed for a patent in 1973 on copper-riveted ‘waist overalls’. Just like that, the blue jeans were born.

The Gilded Age was in full swing in the USA, and Strauss had set his heart on making his new jeans the mark of hard-working men who were rebuilding their country for the future. In 1886, the famous two-horse logo first appeared on the jeans’ leather patches to promise strength and reliability from the garments. These were something sturdy to see the countrymen through times of turbulence and change.

And, as we jump into the twentieth century, the Levi’s red tab was introduced. First appearing around the early 1930s, America had established itself as a world power — and Levi’s was following suit. Imitation, they say, is the most sincere form of flattery — and so many blue jeans were being produced that Levi’s needed the red tab to differentiate themselves.

The riveting history of Levi’s jeans
They didn't wear many shirts during the summer of love but they always wore Levi's

Entering the ‘Summer of Love’ in 1967, Levi’s were already a cultural icon around the world, and had everyone from A-listers to rock stars pulling pairs on. Musicians even recorded radio adverts for the brand, upping their ‘cool’ factor and cementing the brand name as synonymous with jeans themselves.

Towards the end of the century, Levi’s provided clothes to the athletes of the 1980 and 1984 Olympic Games — and, by the 1990s, their influence was so that Forbes labelled the brand the most admired apparel company in the world.

Today, over 500 dedicated Levi’s stores are spread across 100 countries — and that’s before you even start to count the concessions in countless department stores, or dedicated sections in vintage style shops.

The famous faces to try on Levi’s

One of the easiest measures of Levi’s impact on popular culture is to take a look at who has a pair in their wardrobe.

Steve Jobs, the brains behind Apple, would wear his trusty 501s almost everyday — pairing them with his signature black turtleneck and immortalised whenever he took to stage to launch a new product. But he wasn’t the first genius to endorse the brand; even Albert Einstein owned a Levi’s leather jacket, that recently sold at Christie’s for £110,000.

Marlon Brando favoured the brand. Bruce Springsteen, of course, is wearing a pair of 501s on the cover of his seminal album Born in the USA, and he is just one of many musicians — from Elton John to The Rolling Stones — to adopt the denim.

Today, the styles offered by Levi’s range from the iconic jeans to jackets, hoodies and accessories. And, thanks to continued endorsement and a raft of successful collaborations, you can be sure that the great and the good will continue rocking the red tabs for years to come.

Now check out our guide to motorcycle style…

Further Reading