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Levi’s Celebrates 150 Years

Like the denim it patented, the jeans maker is one durable brand

spinner image a view of levis 501 jeans from the back
Photo: Levi’s

These old jeans of mine have seen their better days.

Used to be dark blue, but now they’re faded.

I guess that’s the story of my life.

I started out naive and now I’m jaded.

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So begins a song I wrote back in the early 2010s, when I fancied myself a songwriter, however long on words and short on musical talent I was. The jeans in question were a pair of low-waist bootcut Levi’s that somehow survived steroid-induced weight gain and loss, two pregnancies (and the fight to recover my body after them) and a 12ish-year run with the top-of-the-pile status in my closet, sitting over my roomier Old Navy and pricier 7 for All Mankind pairs. I’d like to say it was because I sought comfort in the familiar — and that was true, but there was more to it than that. They fit me, like an I-see-those-curves-and-I-got-you kind of fit. They felt like jeans, with a thick and sturdy cotton that had become buttery soft with time. Even with patched (and re-patched) holes worn into the thighs and a few belt loops ripped loose from years of tugging on them as I pulled them up, my Levi’s were worthy of the love song I’d written to them. 

And given the fact that Levi’s original 501s are celebrating 150 years of production this year, I know I’m not the only one who feels that way.

On May 20, 1873, Levi Strauss & Co. and tailor Jacob Davis received their patent for copper rivets applied to denim work pants. Levi’s 501 jeans soon after entered the San Francisco marketplace and the American lexicon. The rest, as they say, is history.

The 501s were built to withstand the rigors of long days spent toiling in railroad yards and on farms. Along the way, the jeans endeared themselves to generations of fashionistas. It has since achieved permanent status as “must haves” in wardrobes shabby and chic.

“I already know what I feel good in and what I like, right? And if you’ve worn Levi’s since you were younger, you know you can go back to that,” says personal stylist and shopper Sonya Benson, whose clients include Rihanna and other celebrities, professional athletes (and their stylish wives), and countless New York Upper East Siders and socialites.

Benson credits the brand’s staying power to two things: consistent fit and outstanding quality.

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Levi’s are consistently on Benson’s list of items to snatch up when thrifting, whether that be at her home base in New York;in Los Angeles curating closets for clients; or in her hometown of Aurelia, Iowa, shopping with her mother.

“I have clients who are still collecting vintage Levi’s,” she says, admitting that she herself has a stack of at least 10 pairs in her closet. “I’ll never get rid of them, ever.”

The Levi’s 501 origin story is one of youthful ingenuity, resourcefulness, and partnership. Legend (and the company’s website) has it that in 1853, Levi Strauss, who at 44 was running a successful branch of the dry goods store he had opened in San Francisco 20 years earlier, was approached by tailor Jacob Davis. Responding to a customer’s request to make his work pants more durable, Davis added metal rivets to pants he had made from fabric he had purchased from Strauss’s store. The pants were a hit!

Davis “quickly decided to take out a patent on the process but needed a business partner to help get the project rolling. He immediately thought of Levi Strauss,” the website recounts.

In 1934, after noting that Western womenhad been wearing their husband’s or brother’s 501s, Levi’s introduced a line of work pants specifically for women, a groundbreaking move since it would take several more decades for women’s pants to go mainstream. 

It is the company’s ability to respond to market needs that has given the brand staying power for these 150 years, Benson says. The rise in popularity of “stretchy” jeans 25 years ago pushed the company to innovate with more complex fabrics. New designs experimented with rises and varying leg widths. Bibbed overalls have come in and out of the product lineup.Levi’s added apparel such as hoodies to its collection, as well as extra wide legs that appeal to Millennials.

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“To keep your company moving forward with fashion, you have to make those offerings,” Benson says. That change with the times makes Levi’s a fashion company, not just an apparel maker. But what makes them legendary? “Your steady eddy 501s are always gonna be there,” she says.

This unique ability to cater to trends while remaining true to its roots is what has made Levi’s, and 501s specifically, a household name for generations, Michelle Gass, president at Levi Strauss & Co., said in a recent press release.

“Levi’s® 501® jeans are not just a staple in closets everywhere, but a garment woven into the very history of apparel and design,” she said. 

Sonya Benson’s Tips for Finding the Best Denim Fit

Don’t go shopping for jeans if you’re not feeling good about yourself on a particular day. “It’s the hardest purchase anyone can make, jeans and pants.”

  • If you find a pair of jeans that fit perfectly at a reasonable price point, buy six pair, making sure that one pair is a size smaller than you normally wear and one is a size bigger. That ensures that your staple jean is always in your closet.
  • Length is everything in a jean. Benson advises her clients to tailor a pair for a heel and a pair for sneakers so that the pants “break” at the right spot on the ankle to elongate the leg.
  • Be patient. Finding the perfect pair of jeans takes time and effort.
  • When buying stretchy jeans, the initial fit should be “almost obscenely tight,” she says. Over a few hours, stretchy jeans tend to stretch across the crotch and waist and that “give” will make them look too saggy and ill-fitting later. For the right fit, you should be able to button them, but may need to give “half a jump” to zip them.

Share your experience: What made your favorite pair of jeans so special? Leave your comments below

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