Source: Business Insider
In the vast tapestry of fashion history, few brands have achieved the level of cultural significance and longevity as Levi's. Synonymous with quality, authenticity, and a rebellious spirit, Levi Strauss & Co. has captivated generations with its iconic denim creations. From its humble beginnings during the California Gold Rush to its status as a global denim empire and the world's bestselling jeans brand, Levi's has a history of innovation, perseverance, transcendence.
Born in 1829, Levi Strauss was a Bavarian immigrant who migrated to San Francisco in 1850 to sell dry goods to miners during the Gold Rush. With working alongside these miners Strauss noticed there was a need for durable pants, so he hired two tailors to make pants from tent canvas. Some year later, he replaced the canvas with denim and reinforced it with copper riveting, birthing the first Levi’s jeans in 1873.
The pants were mostly confined to working men in the western United States for their early history. Cowboys, ranchers, lumberjacks, and railroad workers were among the few who wore the jeans in the 1920s. Now closer to the modern pair today, the jeans received a lot number of 501 to designate them, which is still the number associated with the main pair of Levi’s today,
Source: Beyond Retro
In the 1930s and 1940s, Levi’s jeans began to get a huge boost due to Easterners vacationing in the West and being exposed to the pants. Following that, the jeans were declared an essential commodity during WWII making them even more popular. It was during this period in 1936 that the iconic red tab was added to the back pocket. The text on the red tab read LEVI'S, which in 1971, was changed to make the 'e' lowercase. Many denim collectors still seek out these "Big E" pairs of Levi's.
During the mid-century, the United States underwent a cultural shift to embrace a more casual everyday style. Levi’s benefitted from significant growth due to this which ushered in a period that was known as the “blue jeans craze”. The jeans became staple garment for subcultures, with Greasers, mods, rockers, and hippies all wearing them as part of the subcultural uniforms. The band Jefferson Airplane was making commercials for Levi’s, actors were wearing them on the big screen, and Martin Luther King Jr. was wearing them during protests.
Source: Honestly WTF
Art historian Caroline A. Jones explained that denim became synonymous with equality and freedom in the US during the 1960s. It was during this period that Levi’s also began releasing jeans that with more experimental cuts. Catering towards the youth, they started producing more flare and bootcut silhouettes, of which received an orange tab on the back instead of the normal red one. The orange tab Levi’s are highly sought after by those into vintage fashion.
While the orange tabs are the most coveted pairs from this period, the brand also released white and black tab pants to differentiate vintage pairs of the pants. The white tab was reserved for mostly corduroys, but in some cases, it was used for a limited lady's line of denim. The black tab was used on denim that was treated with the brands anti-wrinkle "Sta-Prest" technology at the time, but it is also sometimes still used for aesthetic reasons today.
The brand continued its reign into the 1970s with similar popularity in subcultures and those seeking a casual style. But in the 1980s, sales waned, and the company faced financial difficulties which forced them to close 60 of its manufacturing plants. To get through the lull of the 1980s, Levi’s took several steps including launching the Docker’s brand in 1986. To market their Khaki’s and Jeans, Levi’s created an extensive marketing campaign that caused a Casual Fridays to become much more popular. Although the brand did not create the concept of casual Fridays, they are responsible for capitalizing on it and making it a huge trend.
1990s and beyond
Unfortunately, the dockers brand was not enough to keep profits up and sales began to wane again. Choosing to go back to the approach of targeting youth buyers, Levi's released a line of grunge oriented corduroys and jeans. These pants received another new color tab, the silver tab which were less desirable than the orange tabs, but still fetch a lot of interest from vintage collectors.
Source: Resurrected Retail
Levi’s had already established themselves as a staple of the culture, and after spending decades chasing demand, they spent most of the 90s and 2000s struggling to reach the peaks they had. It took until 2007 for the brand to be profitable again after a long span of losses. Since then, they have shifted their focus to creating more sustainable jeans. Levi's is now the most sustainable brand of jeans in the world when it comes to water usage, and one of the only two major companies with commitments in line with the Paris Agreement.
There are few clothing companies with the cultural impact that Levi’s has had. After 150 years, Levi’s has not only had a lasting impact on the US, but their products are sold in 110 countries. They are instantly recognizable, with the number 501, and the red tab synonymous with the company. They have had a place in countless subcultures and have made their way onto everyone from laborers to runway models. Levi’s are not associated with any single person or group; they belong to no one, and they will remain an enduring pair of pants that will stand the test of time.