Over 140 Years On, These Jeans Are Still the Coolest

Levi's 501s don't need any introduction: Nearly everyone pretty much knows what the iconic jeans look like. But did you know the fascinating history behind the classic denim brand and how it became a household name? We're examining the label's origins as well as the stars who propelled the brand to be what it is today. Keep scrolling for a look at how the Levi's 501s became the wardrobe staple we can't do without.

The Story 

The history behind the most iconic trousers in the world began when Levi Strauss decided to head west to seek his fortune in California during the gold rush in the mid 1800s. The wife of a miner wanted a more durable pair of trousers for her husband and asked her local tailor, Jacob Davis to help. He created the first pair of ‘blue jeans’ with copper rivets at the points of strain for strength and durability. He went to his denim supplier Levi Strauss (who owned a dry goods business) to seek financial support to get the patent in 1983, the two of them went into business together under LS&Co. While we might think the name 501 is synonymous with Levi's, it wasn't until the 1890s that lot numbers were introduced and the 501 was born. According to Levi's, because of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, Levi’s lost a lot of their company history so it’s unknown why the 501 jeans were named exactly. 

levi's 501: levi's jeans close up with the iconic red label

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Getty Images 

The Rise in Popularity 

While the garment was created in the late 1800s, it wasn't until decades later in the 1960s that jeans started to became the popular item they are today. And it was all down to Hollywood stars wearing the trousers: namely James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, although Dean wasn't wearing Levi's, the star's adoption of the workwear staple became a symbol of youth rebellion.

Levi's 501

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Getty Images

Similarly, Marlon Brando wore jeans in The Wild One (although this time, the were Levi's). This new look worn by the young stars coincided neatly with the emergence of the "teenager," a term coined in the late '40s to show how young people had their own lifestyle and dress codes distinct from adults. It was also the first time postwar that young people had disposable income, meaning they could make more choices about what they wanted to wear. And it was jeans that truly defined the teenager of that era.

levi's 501: marlon brando wearing levi's jeans

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Getty Images

The Adverts 

Although the emergence of youth culture propelled the brand to become popular in the mid 1900s, by the mid '80s, it was struggling, and sales started to decline. However, Levi's enlisted the help of advertisers John Hegarty and Barbara Noakes, who created the famous 1985 launderette ad to appeal to the MTV crowd.

According to WGSN, the reasoning behind the '50s-themed advert, in which a man strips off down to his boxers in order to wash his shrink-to-fit 501 jeans, was because the teenage demographic was obsessed with retro Americana. By the end of the '90s, Levi's hit a peak with sales at £6.2 billion thanks to its youth-orientated ad campaigns, including this one featuring a then-unknown Brad Pitt.

The A-list Fan Base

The ultimate approval for a brand often comes from A-listers wearing the label. But it wasn't just James Dean and Marlon Brando who have had a hand in giving the jeans their ubiquitousness…

levi's 501: marilyn monroe wearing jeans

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Getty Images

levi's 501: bruce springsteen wearing levi's jeans on born in the U.S.A. album cover

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Columbia Records

There was Marilyn Monroe, who wore a pair of jeans on the set of The Misfits; Bruce Springsteen, whose Born in the USA album featured a pair of Levi's; Steve Jobs, who only wore 501s; and Alexa Chung, who had this to say about the legendary style: "They were the only acceptable style of jeans. The Levi's brand back then was so in touch with youth culture that it was hard to believe it hadn't been created in a laboratory by a collective of style bloggers."

levi's 501: steve jobs wearing levi's jeans

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Getty Images

levi's 501: alexa chung wearing jeans

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Getty Images

The Legacy

Although Levi's sales started to decline in the early '00s thanks to a more competitive denim market, there's high demand for the vintage-style 501s. In 2017, the brand launched a new line called Levi's Authorized Vintage. The range—a collection of jeans from the '70s, '80s, and '90s—was amassed by a tech worked called Jeff Fuller, who spotted the demand for vintage Levi's back in the 1985.

The brand bought the collection for an undisclosed sum in 2016, and now Levi's is reimagining the denim market for those who are obsessed with the vintage look. Whether that's using these jeans to re-create archived pieces or working with brands such as Vetements and Off-White, it's clear that Levi's will forever remain one of the most popular denim brands around.

SHOP 501s AND OTHER LEVI'S JEANS

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This piece was published at an earlier date and has been updated. 

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