An Ode to Levi’s 501

They were the jeans I wore as a kid.  Actually, to be honest I was probably wearing hand-me-down K-Mart jeans as kid.  The truth is that they were the jeans that my Dad wore when he was growing up, and that means a lot more to me than if I wore them myself.  Unlike the era that I was raised in, during my Dad’s formative years there wasn’t an unlimited array of denim options, there was simply a small pack of quality American made jeans.  And at the top of that group stood the originals, Levi’s 501.

It all began in 1853, as Levi Strauss, a Bavarian immigrant headed west to San Francisco, hoping to make his fortune from the California gold rush.  Back on the east coast, Strauss’ brothers owned and operated a Dry Good’s shop, so Levi decided to bring his family’s business to the ever-increasing stream of miners flowing into California.  For over a decade, Strauss made his way as a straight up trader, and then one day he received a letter from a Reno based tailor, Jacob Davis.  Levi is the name most often uttered in conversations about the creation of jeans, but Jacob Davis’ name certainly deserves be mentioned in the same breath.  Jacob had previously bought a few spools of hemp from Levi to turn into pants, but his customers kept coming back to him with busted seams.  So Davis had the idea to reinforce the pant’s stress points with copper rivets, but he needed Levi’s money to afford a patent, so in 1873 they went into business together.  Their first models were dubbed “waist overalls,” sewn together in San Francisco out of 9 ounce XX blue denim straight from New Hampshire and finished off with the brand’s trademark rivets.

Around 1890, the pair’s patent expired, which meant they no longer had the exclusive rights to riveted pants.  With the market wide open, Levi and Jacob needed to find a way to distinguish their products, so they began printing the story of Levi’s and XX denim on the inside of their pants.  They also started referring to the jean as the 501, a way to brand their product, allowing customers to ask for it by name.  Back then 501didn’t really signify a certain cut, there really weren’t that many fits so 501 simply meant that they were a Levi’s jean.  Yet, over the years 501 came to symbolize the classic cut-straight leg, no taper, medium rise.  And it’s these same characteristics that prevailed over a century ago that drew me to the 501 today.

Writer Mickey Spillane in a pair of 501s

My personal trajectory through the world of denim actually speaks a lot about jeans as a whole.  Growing up my jeans were pretty much garbage, they were made overseas out of subpar materials, and they wouldn’t last me more than a few months.  But I wore them because quite frankly that’s what was available so that’s what my parents bought me.  But when they were kids they had an entirely different experience.  They wore American made, selvedge denim because that was the norm, but as the years wore on production moved abroad, and the standards were lowered to save a few bucks.

So until I was about fifteen that’s all I had, and then as I started taking an interest in clothes, raw denim was really the first step.  After reading all the mantra’s about saving up and buying quality, I went right out and bought a pair of several hundred dollar jeans, and for over a year I put that pair through hell trying to get them up to their faded potential.  But to be honest I was never satisfied with that pair.  I always found the rise to be too low, and the legs to be just too skinny, complaints I’ve actually heard from a lot of my peers about modern jeans.So after suffering through that pair for a while, I decided enough was enough and one day I just retired them, swinging from a daily denim dependence to not wearing jeans at all.

And then a few months ago I read a short post by one of the people I respect most in this industry, Antonio Ciongoli, who aside from designing for Michael Bastian, writes 13th and Wolf/Tredici e Lupo.  It was on there that Antonio mentioned that the only jeans he wears now are Levis 501s.  A few days later I decided to try them out for myself, picking up a well-worn pair on eBay for about 10 bucks.  Those jeans instantly became the best pair that I’ve ever worn.  The cut was perfect, striking the balance between slim and straight legged, with a rise that I could tuck a shirt into without looking like I was suffocating myself.  Best of all they were just comfortable.  For a couple months those were the only jeans I wore, and then a few days ago I saw that Billy Reid had a pair of raw selvedge, Made in the USA 501’s on sale, and I had to give them a shot. Tossing those on for the first time, I couldn’t help but think of my dad, wearing 501’s as a kid growing up in the sixties.  The cut, construction, and feel still exactly the same.  And then I realized that despite the seemingly infinite amount of jeans out there from all over the world, in a million different cuts and weights, the original still reigned over them all.

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  1. Ken P said:

    I wouldn’t necessarily associate the word “Slim” with the cut of the 501.I mean they are slimmer than the relaxed fit levi’s but for the most part they are really the most “normal” fit jean there is out there. If you purchase the shrink to fits (which honestly you should) the leg opening can be controlled slightly by your initial soak and stretch. I prefer to get mine tapered, that way the rise/waist/seat have that classic 501 shape but they still look contemporary.

    • Thanks for the comment, saying that they straddle the line between slim and straight is probably a better way to phrase it. I think that it’s tough to describe a jean as flat out straight legged because that implies a fuller cut which 501s definitely are not. I personally do have the shrink to fits, but I like that the leg isn’t tapered, to me they’re more comfortable that way, but that’s obviously a personal preference thing. Regardless thanks for your input.

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