Rediscovering the Levi’s 501, The World’s First Blue Jeans

Few products have stood the test of time as long as the Levi’s 501. Preceding UV-tinted sunglasses, spiked running shoes, and even T-Shirts, the 501 celebrates its 150th anniversary this year as it continues to shape our world as the “greatest story ever worn.” Transcending its roots as functional workwear, the pairs have become a lasting symbol of style, individuality, and rebellion — worn and loved by generations of people from all walks of life.

The story begins in the late 19th century when Bavarian immigrant Levi Strauss moved to San Francisco to open a wholesale dry goods business during the California Gold Rush. A Nevada tailor named Jacob Davis later approached Strauss with the novel concept of using metal rivets to reinforce stress points in denim work pants and on May 20, 1873, the duo were granted a patent on the process of riveting pants by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, giving birth to the first iteration of the 501s and blue jeans as we know it.

Initially called “Waist Overalls,” the 501 jeans were primarily designed for manual laborers such as miners, farmers, and railroad workers. Using durable denim materials, the original pairs featured a button fly, metal rivets, and a cinch on the back for an adjustable fit. The now-iconic red tab was introduced in 1936, making it easier to identify Levi’s jeans in the increasingly saturated marketplace.

The transition from workwear to casual wear started in the early 20th century when Hollywood actors like John Wayne popularized jeans as a symbol of the West and in the 50s and 60s, the pairs were embraced by youth counterculture as figures like James Dean which gave the 501 its rebellious edge still felt to this day. During this time, the cinch back was notably removed as pre-shrunk denim was introduced. In the 80s, the punk and rock movements embraced the 501 as a symbol of nonconformity helping popularize the jeans as an everyday staple. Today, the 501 jeans continues to adapt and diversify via various fits and materials, catering to an ever-expanding range of preferences.

Building upon its heritage, the 501 continues to adapt to shifts in fashion, culture, and consumer tastes, while simultaneously shaping that which it touches, serving as a vessel for change. Worn by everyone from herders in the fields of the Wild West to youth during the fall of the Berlin Wall to Steve Jobs for every keynote presentation, the 501 has remained a fixture in our closets and a beloved part of our collective history for the past 150 years.

Explore more via Issue 501®, a zine presented by Hypebeast celebrating the rich history of the original denim jean with the people and communities who are charging the 501 up with new energy in 2023 and beyond.

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