Levi's 501: The Design Evolution of an Icon
- Feb 20, 2013
When Levi Strauss partnered with tailor Jacob Davis in 1873 on a patent for riveted pockets on work pants for Western pioneers, they couldn’t have dreamed of its impact on modern culture. The Levi’s 501 button fly jean – the original and first ever blue jean – was born on May 20, 1873. From Steve McQueen to Steve Jobs the 501 has been part of our day to day lives for 140 years later and it is more popular to global culture and style than ever before..
Deemed Time Magazine’s ‘Fashion Item of the 20th Century’ – the original Levi’s 501 button fly jean is an American icon that has been woven and stitched deeply into our world’s cultural heritage. From presidents to movie stars, farmers to fashion icons, entrepreneurs to the every man, the cultural significance of Levi’s 501 jeans has been defined by the people who wear them. No other product has been worn, loved or re-imagined quite like Levi’s 501 jeans. A symbol of individuality and universality – the 501 jean is the ultimate expression of personal style – worn by the pioneers who shape our world, generation after generation. - Levi's press release
In this post we would like to share a visual evolution of this american icon, and my favorite jeans. The Levi’s 501 story begins in 1890 – the 1st year the 501 lot number was assigned to the iconic 501 jean. Starting from 1890 through today, looking closely at the historical design evolution of the 501 and how the blue jean has subtly evolved through the years.
1890 was the year that the 501 lot number was first assigned to the iconic jean. Why this number was chosen is unknown because the company’s historical records were destroyed in the 1906 SF earthquake. What is known is that Levi’s riveted products whose lot number began with the number “5” were considered to be of the highest quality. A description of the quality of the pants was printed on the inside of the left pocket bag as another way to set the jeans apart from other clothing companies.
1922 marked the first year LS&Co. sourced all of its fabric from Cone Mills in Greensboro, NC. Cone Mills developed the now famous “red selvage” denim made exclusively for the 501®. Belt loops were add to the 501 for the first time in 1922. Belts began appearing on fine clothing soon after WWI and became an important change to men’s fashion – especially for working men.
Hidden under the leather patch of the 1933 501 was a tiny, white cloth label with the letters “NRA” and a blue eagle. This was the National Recovery Act label which LS&CO. was allowed to use because the company abided by President Franklin Roosevelt’s NRA labor rules of the 1930s.
The 1937 501 featured the famous Red Tab with “LEVI’S” stitched in white CAPITAL letters on the right back pocket as an identifying mark to distinguish Levi’s from the competition at rodeos, parades or other events. Red was chosen because it contrasted well with the dark blue denim and was easy to see. In 1937 LS&Co. also began sewing the back pockets of the 501 to cover the rivets as a response to consumer complaints. Everyone loved the strength of the exposed back pocket rivets, but they tended to scratch furniture and saddles. Consumers were used to seeing the rivets, so we created a pocket “flasher” and inserted it into the right back pocket to advertise that the rivets were “still there.”
Everything changed during WWII. The 1944 501 continued to use Cone Mills denim, but many features were adapted due to wartime rationing enforced by the U.S. government since metal, fabric and thread were needed for everything from battleships to uniforms. Rivets were removed from the watch pocket, cinch and the base of the button fly; no one really liked that one anyway because it tended heat up when people were crouched in front of the campfire (unlike the watch rivet, the “crotch” rivet was not replaced when the war was over). The famous Arcuate stitching also had to be removed since the threaded design was decorative and had no function. Rather than lose this important design detail, LS&Co. started painting the Arcuate stitching on every pair of 501®s. The paint eventually washed off but having that stitching visible at the time of purchased was important.
When WWII ended and raw materials were available again, LS&Co. began heavy production again to meet the growing post-war demand. The 1947 501 is considered the first “modern” 501 - it featured a slimmer fit, without extra archaic details like the cinch or suspender buttons. The watch pocket rivets came back and the Arcuate was once again stitched (vs painted on), and new double needle machines were now used to stitch the Arcuate. All of these updates gave the 1947 501 a sleeker, more streamlined look that was perfect for the coming decades.
In the mid 1950s LS&Co. began selling 501®s on the U.S. East Coast for the first time and thanks to American soldiers taking their 501®s with them overseas, a new wave of growth also arose in Europe and Asia. In 1954, a zipper version of the 501 was introduced: the 501Z®. The 501Z® featured a more narrow, tapered leg and a zipper fly for comfort. In the 1950s Hollywood costume designers began dressing movie stars in 501®s including Marlon Brando in “The Wild One” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” and Marilyn Monroe in “The Misfits”. This move gave the 501 a whole new place in fashion & popular culture.
The 1955 501 had a quintessential 50s shape – like the classic cars of the day, the silhouette was boxy but tough with a square top block and a straight leg. The 1955 501 was the first to use a leather-like Two Horse label and a double sided Levi’s capital “E” Red Tab.
In the 60s, the 501 begins to show up at protest rallies in Berkeley, love-ins in San Francisco, and a little music festival in Bethel, NY called Woodstock. The 60s were all about universality and individuality, and the 501®s was – and continues to be – the perfect expression of both. In 1966 rivets were completely removed from the back pockets. Bar tack technology had evolved so that tough stitching worked as well as tough metal – so the back rivets just weren’t needed anymore.
The 1978 501 featured the very first small “e” Red Tab. When “vintage” Levi’s became a hot collectible in the late 80s, the Tab’s design became the dividing line between what was valuable and what was not. “Big E” (vintage) and “Little e” (not vintage) tabs are still the yardsticks by which collectible Levi’s jeans are judged.
True to their spirit, the 501 continues to evolve to meet the needs of a new generation. This season, for the first time ever the 501 is available in new, modern colors including mineral red, chalk blue, ivy green, true chino and white – and a lighter weight shrink-to-fit twill fabric. The 2013 501 also features finer fabric, reinforced stitching, larger pockets to store your latest smart phone, and updated belt loops, inseams and cuffs.
For more information about Levi’s® and in case you want to participate in their latest brand campaign tag photos of yourselves in your 501 jeans, in case you have one, visit Levi's 501 page at http://levis501.com/