You probably have owned a pair of levi jeans at some point in your life. You may even have them on or in your closet right now. But do you know the history behind the jeans? And do you know how the Levi Strauss company has a pattern of identifying, shaping and positioning its humble denim jeans at the center of trends for the last 150 years?
San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum has an exhibit on Levi Strauss: A History of American Style running through August 2020. It created the exhibit in conjunction with Levi Strauss’s corporate historian. The exhibit includes hundreds of items from the corporate archives which are rarely seen by the public.
The History of Levi Strauss
The story begins in 1829 with the birth of Lob (later changed to Levi) Strauss in Buttenheim Germany. The family’s eldest son moved to the United States to escape the growing number of restrictions that Germany was imposing on Jews. He established a dry goods store in New York City and brought the rest of their family—including younger brother Lob—to America to work at the store in 1847.
Levi was intrigued by California Gold Rush opportunities. He moved to the then exploding city of San Francisco in 1853. He then opened his own dry goods store to sell supplies to miners and the growing number of people flooding into Northern California. The store prospered and Levi became one of the city’s leading businessmen and philanthropists.
Striking Gold with Denim
In 1873, a gold-field tailor named Jacob Davis approached Strauss with his new invention and a business proposition. He created a process for using copper rivets to reinforce and improve the durability of denim work clothes. Strauss immediately saw the potential for the pants. Partnering with Davis, he filed and received a patent (is that a sketch of a woman in the patent or a man?) and built a factory to produce them. The company’s “waist overalls” and related goods struck their own form of gold.
Each of three galleries then focused on roughly 50 year segments of the company’s history, and evolving role of its jeans and demin in the country’s cultural fabric. These periods are roughly:
- 1850s to the early 1900s. The company focused on making pants for California’s, and the country’s workers. Miners, farmers, tradesmen or factory workers all needed pants that didn’t fall apart. The exhibits included panels describing the period, pictures, early corporate ledgers, brochures and advertisements. On display were many period Levi pants and overalls, including an amazingly well preserved, 1890-era 501 jeans.
- Early-mid 1900s. During this time, Levi capitalized on and promoted the emergence of moving pictures, especially the increasingly popular Westerns, whose characters often wore blue jeans. The company used cowboys as marketing symbols. It introduced a line of Western clothing and sponsored and promoted its wares at rodeos, county fares and other Western-themed or related events.
- Post WWII era. Levi jeans became the de facto uniform of the counterculture, the “Hippie” and Student movements. Jeans became a symbol of the era of free spirits and creativity worldwide. They increasingly became a staple of popular culture and societal democratization. The company and its products embraced the Counterculture (as with Marlon Brando and James Dean), the Hippie Movement (as in “Easy Rider”) and music (Woodstock, Monterey Pop Festival and the Summer of Love). It encouraged third parties to use blue denim creatively. Blue denim showed up in elaborate denim gowns, tuxedos and car upholstery. It produced bell bottom and elaborately decorated jeans. It held contests for decorative jean. It also continued its cultivation of mainstream Hollywood. Ads showed stars wearing Levi jeans. And it created unique wardrobes for stars. Lauren Bacall had a denim suit for example. It presented a tux to Bing Crosby after he was refused entry into a restaurant when wearing jeans. It also expanded its founder’s philanthropic efforts, with its particularly active support of LGBTQ and AIDS efforts. Exhibits’ include dozens of elaborately decorated jeans (it held contests for best decorated jeans) and denim gowns, Crosby’s denim tux, a denim-upholstered car, and Levi products that were worn by popular cultural touchstones of the period, such as Albert Einstein’s favorite Levi leather jacket and Steve Jobs’ jeans.
Overall, it is a fun and informational exploration of one company’s odyssey from supplier of a specialized, utilitarian product to a tiny niche of working-class laborers into a near-universal cultural touchstone. If the exhibit reopens when after the Corna-19 virus crisis resolves, it is definitely worth a visit.