Considering the ever-moving trend cycle, it’s hard to imagine a branded item of clothing staying relevant for more than a couple decades. Fifty years is a feat. One hundred years is rare. One hundred and fifty years is simply unheard of. Well, it seems a specific style of denim has achieved the unachievable. Yes, this summer, Levi’s iconic 501 jeans celebrated this milestone birthday, solidifying its place in fashion history. And considering the sheer recognition of the style, it’s not too surprising that it’s managed to be embraced for centuries.
Dubbed by TIME magazine as the “Fashion Item of the 20th Century” in 1999, it’s safe to say most people have some sort of connection to the classic silhouette — defined by its button fly, the denim, the rivets, and the back patch. “It hasn't changed. And we were very careful about that, not to make that change. The roots and the origin of the 501 as a worker garment also kind of contributes to the sense of having a democratic [piece] anyone can wear. If you want to fit in, you wear it. If you want to wear something that also has [elements of] cool, it also [has that].”
In present day, the 501 has evolved quite a bit from the original rigid work pant of yore. These days, the template is applied to just about every bottom you can imagine — a roomy ‘90s-style long pant, a Y2K-inspired up-to-there miniskirt, easy cut-off shorts, etc. In casting such a wide net, it seems everyone has some sort of history or experience with Levi’s 501.
“I got my first pair of Levi 501 original fit jeans when I was in high school and completely wore them down,” says Los Angeles-based stylist and content creator Emily Men. “They were my go-to pair of jeans because they were comfortable and went with everything.” The fashion pro (who currently favors the 501 Original Short) adds that she recommends the style to “honestly, everyone” comparing the 501 to the versatility of a basic white tee. “Everyone should have a classic, non-trendy pair of 501s in their closet.”
Stylist Sophie Strauss seconds this notion, adding that the longevity of the 501 was embedded in its initial purpose. “The 501s were quite literally built to last,” she says to TZR. “Initially, that meant physically more than stylistically — adding rivets to parts of pants that would often tear meant that workers could trust these pants would last them longer, and therefore require less repairs, than other pants. But I believe such a deep root in functionality and durability organically translates to aesthetics and style.”
In honor of its milestone birthday, TZR takes a stroll down memory lane, chronicling the meteoric rise of Levi’s 501s from practical work pant to style icon.
To be clear, this is not the year the 501 was created, per se. It was the date that, on May 20, clothing and fabric company Levi Strauss and Company and tailor Jacob Davis (who was also a client) received the patent on the rivet-adorned pants, which promised sturdier, longer-lasting wear for outdoor workers. Davis is essentially the original creator of the 501, which he designed using fabric he purchased from Levi’s. The story on the creation of the pant starts a bit earlier, in 1872, and goes a little something like this: “There were lots of working miners, hunters, and men who needed tough pants [at the time],” says Panek. “And [Davis] made some for a woman who complained that her husband kept tearing his pants. He sells them to the wife and word starts to spread about how tough they are. And Davis starts to get more and more orders. He writes a letter [to Levi Strauss] saying he can't keep up with demand, they’re so popular, so Davis invites the company to take out a patent with him.”
And the rest, as they say, is history. The roomy, straight-leg pants, which included a cinch at the waist and originally featured a single back pocket, would not receive their 501 title until 1890 when the lot number 501 is first used to distinguish the highest quality of denim by the company.
In 1901, overalls were officially introduced, as was the addition of a second back pocket. According to Levi’s, both are likely due to “consumer requests or a shift in men’s fashions at the time.” Some 20 years later, belt loops were added to the overall style. It’s reported that many men removed the cinch from their overalls to allow them to wear belts more easily.
The 1930s saw the official addition of the first women’s blue jeans, dubbed Lady Levi’s® Lot 701, originally designed for women living or vacationing on ranches and farms. “People are traveling to the West,” says Panek. “Dude ranches are really popular. People want to come and see a horse and they want to dress up as a cowboy.” It didn’t take long for the fashion world to take notice. “Lady Levis are featured in an article in Vogue about what to wear to the dude ranch,” the Levi’s historian adds. “It's an article that says, if you're going to come to a dude ranch, get yourself a pair of Lady Levis and you're going to want to get a Stetson cowboy hat, and a kerchief to wear around your neck. And if you do that and have a great pair of jeans, you'll have a great time.”
In no time, the brand’s jeans were popping up in high-end retailers across NYC’s Fifth Avenue. “So you start to see the shifts,” says Panek. “People are buying them, not really because they're workwear but because they want to dress like a cowboy.” This Americana trend and lifestyle was also likely heavily fueled by the Western movie boom, led by blockbuster actors like John Wayne (who wore 501s in his 1939 film Stagecoach).
World War II brought about some big changes for Levi’s (and the rest of the world, in general). “We’re asked to reduce metal and other materials,” explains Panek. “So we make some key decisions [in regards to the 501] like removing the back belt buckle, or cinch, to save metal and fabric.” This time period also signified a shift in fashion as many women went to work in the factories, relying daily on sturdy denim to protect them from welding and riveting work. This brought the 501s into focus as a practical, everyday essential.
After the war, in 1947, the 501s made their debut on the Parisian runways at the first All-American fashion show, conceived by Adolph Schuman, San Francisco Manufacturers’ and Wholesalers’ Association President. The presentation aimed to introduce European audiences to more casual, livable, California-cool apparel. Held in the Grand Ballroom of the Georges V Hotel, the show was a “whopping success,” with two stand-out stars leaving an impression on the French crowd. “[Levi’s] sent two twins [Patricia and Priscilla Emery] who modeled Levi’s with cowboy hats and satin shirts,” says Panek. “Imagine being there, where the other [styles] are couture dresses and big chiffon ball gowns. And then you have these two young women coming out wearing this American attire.”
By the 1950s, blue jeans become a versatile style staple among women, advertised as “so smart, so practical” says Panek. “And you've got women standing out in the garden or they're by the barbecue and they're in their 501s,” she explains. “And of course you also see women wearing them in the movies. Like Marilyn Monroe, who wears them in The Misfits.”
The late 1950s and early 1960s also saw denim gain elements of edginess, thanks in large part, again, to celebrities like James Dean and Marlon Brando. “[501s] take on this little air of rebellion when motorcycle clubs were wearing them and featured in the movies,” says Panek. This cool-factor continued and evolved as musicians like Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, and Patti Smith, made jeans regular stars of their wardrobes.
Fascinated and enamored with American culture and fashion, Levi’s 501s became a hot commodity among the youth in the Soviet Union in the 1970s. “During the Cold War, you had people exchanging them because they were forbidden,” says Panek. “Behind the Iron Curtain you couldn't buy them. So they take on the symbolism of freedom.”
In 1981, Lady Levi’s was a thing of the past, with the brand officially launching 501 jeans for women via the famous “Travis” commercial. By this time, the jeans had fully settled into every aspect of the zeitgeist, embraced by music stars like Run DMC, Beastie Boys, and Bruce Springsteen (who famously wore 501s on his Born in the USA album cover) as well as tech giants like Steve Jobs, who paired denim with his signature black turtleneck.
In the 1990s, supermodels and Hollywood starlets jumped on board, with runway darlings like Cindy Crawford and It-girls like Winona Ryder and the cast of Beverly Hills 90210 reaching for their 501s for everything from high-profile commercials and red carpet events to shopping trips on Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive.
In the early 2000s, the classic 501 pant got an upgrade that catered to the demand for a roomier silhouette. According to Levi’s, “The leg is balanced and straightened with the bottom opening increased ½ inch. The back rise is straightened for more fullness in the outer thigh and seat and a more comfortable silhouette, and the pitch from the back to the front rise is increased.”
And just a few years later, ever-changing trend cycle brought the silhouette back to a slimmer fit. The skinny jean phenomenon that dominated the 2010s also caught up to the iconic pant as the brand released the 501 Skinny for women in 2017. The vintage-inspired silhouette captured the elements of the classic style and threw in a chic slimmer leg and shrink-to-fit stretch denim.
That same year, the 501 was honored by MoMA as “as one of 111 fashion items that have had a profound impact on the world in the 20th and 21st centuries in the exhibition, ‘Items: Is Fashion Modern?’” according to Levi’s.
In present day, there are multiple versions of the 501 available, embraced by different generations — Levi’s 501 Original, 501 Mid-Thigh Short, 501 Knee Length Short, and 501 Cropped to name a few. There’s literally a little something for everyone. Levi’s has even collaborated with brands like Re/Done for exclusive reconstructed styles of the classic jean, — proving that, even after 150 years, reinvention can continue to be achieved in fresh and relevant ways. But, the core of this practical staple remains so evident that you can likely spot a pair of 501s in a crowd at any time. Now, that’s what you call a true style icon.