Iconic Levi’s 501 Jeans Turns 143 Years Old

Lights, camera, denim. As the iconic Levi’s 501 turns 143 years old, Derick Chetty explains why we’d rather be forever in blue jeans.

The legendary designer Yves Saint Laurent once said, “I wish I had invented blue jeans; the most spectacular, the most practical, the most relaxed and nonchalant. They have expression, modesty, sex appeal, simplicity.”

As Levi’s, the inventor of the blue jean, celebrates the 143rd anniversary of the 501 this year, we’re reminded how jeans are the most egalitarian of fashion garments; transcending age, gender and socio-economic bracket.

Jeans have been embraced, beloved and worn by presidents, movie stars, cowboys, rock gods, supermodels, bikers, teenagers and senior citizens. In each incarnation, they represent something entirely different while retaining their unique character.

For the boomer generation, it all began in 1955 with the film Rebel Without a Cause when James Dean’s brooding character wore a pair with cuffs rolled up and created a style sensation that has yet to subside and probably never will.

At the time, the indigo craze was considered so subversive, it was banned in schools. But the film spoke to a generation of teenagers who would go on to rebel with a cause deep into the ’60s, demonstrating in anti-war protests and civil rights marches and eventually evolving into the laid-back hippie culture.

Singer Eartha Kitt riding her bicycle down the street. (Photo by Gordon Parks/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Singer Eartha Kitt riding her bicycle down the street. (Photo by Gordon Parks/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Of course, we still wear jeans today—possibly the only style item we have in common with our grandchildren. And it still has the power to bring on that sensation of being young and carefree. No wonder Time magazine declared Levi’s 501 the fashion item of the 20th century back in 1999.

While denim can bestow cool, it can also take it away. When U.S. President Barack Obama wore a pair of “mom jeans” on his lanky frame in 2009 when he threw the opening pitch at the Major League All-Star Game, he was criticized by fashionistas for not selecting a more au courant style. But the image reminded the world that he’s not just the leader of the free world but also a devoted husband, father and your average baseball fan.

It comes back to design. One CEO of a global brand obsessed with simplicity also famously chose jeans as his uniform: the late Steve Jobs wore them (with a black turtleneck) each time he introduced a seismic new Apple product. A mogul in jeans is one way of telegraphing power by choosing not to dress powerfully. As Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg does with his hoodie and jeans.

Jeans can be a blank statement with which one can project individuality. And over the years, fans have customized them to declare their agenda. In the ’70s, we decorated them with hippie peace and love patches. As the disco era burned, Gloria Vanderbilt ignited the craze for designer jeans.

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James Dean on the set of “Giant,” 1955.

By the ’80s, punks took to ripping, studding and safety pins, a message that was anti-establishment. In the ’90s, jeans went grunge and by 2000, the glam factor returned with bling and embellishments. A long way from Levi’s first pair—when the sole purpose was entirely utilitarian, the most durable thing for miners to wear during the gold rush. Another symbol of America’s Western mythology—the cowboy—also adopted the jean, as James Dean did playing a Texas ranch hand in Giant.

While Levi’s 501 is an American icon, Canada has laid claim to denim as an unofficial—albeit, humorous—national uniform. The term “Canadian tuxedo” means wearing denim head to toe.

This is how the story goes. In 1951, American star Bing Crosby was turned away from a Vancouver hotel because he was wearing double denim. Levi Strauss sent him a custom-made denim tuxedo with a patch inside warning hotel men everywhere to treat the wearer with respect. Something denim and the quintessential blue jean no longer have to fight for.

A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2016 issue with the headline, “Lights, Camera, Denim!,” p. 54-55.