The History of Levi's and the United States

Levi's cowboys

What would Levi's be without the United States? It probably wouldn't exist. And what would the US be without Levi's? It may seem impossible, but it most likely would be a very different country than the one we know today. From the Gold Rush years in the second half of the nineteenth century to now, Levi’s has played a major role in the history of the United States of America


Levi Strauss and the Gold Rush

The creator of Levi’s was in 1829 in Buttenheim, a market town near Núremberg, Germany. From a Jewish family, Strauss together with his family crossed the Atlantic in 1847. At first they settled in New York, however much later they would move to the West Coast to answer the call of the California Gold Rush.

Along with the Strauss family, nearly 300.000 people emigrated to California in the hopes of bettering their financial situation. In just one short year, the small village of San Francisco went from having 1.000 habitantes (1848) to 25.000 (1849), and in 1870 the population had reached a whopping 150.000.

Levi Strauss   gold rush california
Photograph of Levi Strauss and a poster from 1849 announcing ship passages to California

California, which became a state of the union in 1850, changed radically during these years: the discovery of gold allowed the construction of the western section of the first transcontinental railroad in the United States, which created a large quantity of jobs for miners of European, Mexican, Chilean, and Chinese descent, among others.

California would forever be synonymous with gold, as well as the American Dream: the US presented itself as a place to start over and for grand opportunities to prosper. Levi Strauss is an example of this.  


Levi Strauss & Co. and The Long Depression

In 1872, Strauss receives a letter from one of his clients, a Nevada tailor named Jacob Davis, who tells him how he manages to make work pants with great durability thanks to the use of rivets. On May 20th, 1873, Levi Strauss & Co. obtains, together with Davis, a patent to create blue jeans with rivets.

levi's overalls vintage  levi's patent overalls
Adverts during the era depicting the durability of Levi Strauss & Co's work pants

A few months later, both in the US and in Europe, there is an economic recession called the Long Depression. During these years, wages significantly dropped, impoverishing the working conditions of the working class. This crisis affected, among others, railroad workers and cotton companies.

However, the Levi Strauss business pushed forward, putting on sale the first work pants, called waist overalls because they were to be worn on top of clothing. This garment was called "XX”, a term that characterized its great quality, and years later would become known as the 501® Jean. They had turned a piece of denim, thread, and metal into what would later become the most used piece of clothing in history.


“Freedom-Alls” and the First World War

We arrive to the twentieth century, more specifically the year 1918. Many men find themselves far from home, fighting with the Allies in the Great War, causing women to take control of the household. This is especially true in the Old West, where they had to take charge of hard, manual labor and needed a comfortable, durable, and pratical garment.

Levi's response arrived in the form of a one-piece garment, sturdy, but comfortable. Curiously naming it “Freedom-Alls", an interesting choice of name considering the country was in the middle of a war.  Beyond its patriotic name amongst dark times, the Freedom-Alls symbolized the growing role of women in society.

Levi's Freedom-Alls  Levi's Freedom-Alls
Freedom-Alls, the first Levi's product for women, designed for exercise and housework.

Although the Freedom-Alls were not a great success, they became a precursor to the 1920's "tog" hiking pants and the Lady Levi’s® of 1934. The latter are the first female jeans that truly resembled their male counterparts, this at a time when it was still frowned upon for a woman to wear pants.


Second World War: textile restrictions

The United States' participation in the Second World War directly affected the production of consumer goods. Following orders from the US Government, Levi Strauss & Co. eliminated the use of certain quantities of metal, cloth, and thread in order to conserve those raw materials for war.

Levi's 501® jeans were stripped of everything that was not essential during this time: the cinch and rivets of the pockets were removed. Thread and buttons from recycled military garments were also used, however in order to save thread the characteristic arcuate stitching of the jean's back pockets had to be handpainted, instead of being sewn:

Levi's 501 1944 levi's vintage clothing
Details of the back pocket of the Levi's 501®  from 1944, where it can be noted the arch or arcuate is hanpainted not sewn


Prosperity and subcultures

After the Second World War, the United States experienced a period of economic prosperity like never before. For the first time, the young people did not need to work from an early age to support their families. This new reality developed a distinct youth culture with different subcultures and fashion styles. It was the time of the greasersrock-and-roll, and rebels of the silver screen like Marlon Brando and James Dean. It was a period in which the working class could afford cetain luxuries and whims unheard of before.

Marlon Brand in The Wild One (1953)  Marilyn Monroe with Levi's
Marlon Brando in the film The Wild One (1953) and Marilyn Monroe on the set of Clash By Night (1952)

Levi’s also changed to adapt to a new generation of consumers. The arcuate stitching reappeared, but old-fashioned elements like the cinch or suspender buttons disappeared. This new generation of Levi's pants featured a more squared silhouette, with an "anti-fit" shape on the rear and a slightly wide cut on the leg. A true symbol of 1950's motorcycle style!


Levi’s, hippies, and customization

The 60's embodied the struggle for Civil Rights and the protrests against the Vietnam War. The youth of the era, fed up with the conservatism of past decades, rebelled against social norms. From this the hippie culture was born, a countercultural and pacifist movement that embraced the sexual revolution, feminism, and naturism.

Levi’s, a symbol of informal style and the working class, was living in a golden age. Levi’s were being personalized with colorful stitchings, patches, paint, as well as being cut and rolled - the perfect canvas for a new generation, the baby boomers.

Festival de Woodstock
Woodstock festival-goers wearing Levi's jeans (1969)

Towards the end of the 60's, Levi Strauss & Co. put bell-bottomed pants on sale shortly before Woodstock kicked off in the summer of 1969. Although not immediately popular, they became an essential and iconic piece of 1970's fashion.

The Runaways 1977 Bell Bottom Levi's  Bell Bottom Levi's ad - 1972
The Runaways band in 1977 and at 1972 Levi's ad

Anarchy in the… USA?

1976 marked the bicentennial anniversary of the creation of the US, which gave the American population a little enthusiasm after widespread frustration following the Watergate scandal, the economic crisis, and the Vietnam War. Young Americans felt disillusioned by a cynical, hypocritical society based on appearances and consumerism. The revolution was served.

1976 also marked the year when the punk movement exploded following the release of the first Sex Pistols single, “Anarchy in the UK”, and the release of the debut album of the Ramones. And just a few months before, Patti Smith had beat them all with the release of Horses, considered one of the most influential punk albums.

Ramones Levi's  Patti Smith Levi's
Front cover of the Ramones debut album and Patti Smith during a concert

While years before it had been fashionable to wear bell-bottomed pants full of patches, paint and color, the end of the 70's saw a radical turn of events. Levi's jeans were narrow legged and torn. The 501® from this era were low-rise compared to their predecessors, and featured a red label with the 'e' in Levi's changed to lowercase. The wash of the jeans also faded faster, due to manufacturing processes which began to use sulfur at the time of dyeing the garment.

Another model of jeans that took off in popularity were the 505®, jeans that were born in 1967 in the so-called con el llamado “Summer of Love”, and which in the 70's were used by musicians of the likes of Debbie Harry (Blondie), Mick Jagger, and Johnny Ramone. This model, considered the underground version of the 501®, had a zipper on the fly, was slightly narrower, and had an even lower waistband.

Debbie Harry Blondie Levi's  Johnny Ramone Levi's
Debbie Harry (Blondie) and Johnny Ramone (Ramones) wearing Levi's 505®

A jean to govern them all 

Levi’s has dressed cowboys from the Wild West, suffragettes, Hollywood stars, greasers, hippies, punks, magnates, and presidentes of the United States. Always true to its roots, Levi’s Strauss & Co. has been able to ride the waves of change, adapting its product to new generations for more than 150 years.

The history of Levi’s Strauss & Co. is exciting. This is why the brand devotes great resources into the acquisition, conservation, and reissue of some of its most mythical garments. Taking pieces of garments from their archives, they create very faithful replicas of products worn years ago.

Via Levi’s Vintage Clothing, the American brand recovers lost pieces of its own puzzle, creating authentic works of art for its most loyal followers. At sivasdescalzo, we have the honor of being the only store in Spain (and one of the few in Europe) to sell the collection: Levi’s Vintage Clothing. What are you waiting for? Grab yourself a piece of history.