They are as much a part of American culture as Coca-Cola, probably the most iconic clothing item ever created. And just about every American in the last hundred years has, at one time or another, zipped or buttoned up a pair of the comfortable and highly durable jeans that have come to be known simply as “Levi’s.”

The story of the legendary riveted denim jeans begins with a German immigrant named Levi Strauss, who came to America via New York City at the age of 18 to work in his brothers’ textile business. After becoming a citizen in 1853, he headed west, thanks to the Gold Rush of 1849, certain that he could sell his wares of fabric, thread, scissors and buttons. With him, he brought numerous bolts of canvas that could be used for tents or covers for Conestoga wagons. But what he soon learned, at least according to legend, was that men didn’t want tents, they wanted durable clothing that could handle the wear and tear of mining. And so, he constructed some overalls out of canvas for the men and thus was the humble beginning of Levi’s jeans.

Well, sort of. The problem with tracing the history of Levi Strauss is that all of the records of the company’s evolution were erased, thanks to the infamous San Francisco Earthquake of 1913. As a result, it is unknown how much of the above story is fact and how much is myth. What is known is that a man named Jacob Davis was instrumental in the creation of what we now know as Levi’s jeans, thanks to a handy little device called the rivet. Davis learned that by placing rivets at the stress points of various clothing items, it reduced their chances of ripping dramatically. Unable to afford the fee to patent his idea, he turned to Levi Strauss and together, they developed the now-iconic 501 jeans. The fabric they chose was a durable cotton twill textile from France called serge De Nimes. You might know it by its Americanized name – denim.

Levi strauss did something that eluded many other companies during the Great Depression – they survived, mainly because the public stayed loyal to the product. With little money to go around, it became imperative that clothing last a long time and Levi’s reputation as virtually indestructible made them invaluable to America’s factory workers. They also became popular with parents who were eager to dress their kids in something that could withstand the rigors of playtime, without the risk of being ruined. Soon, kids could run, crawl and splash with reckless abandon, knowing that their denim could take a beating and return to see another day.

When WWII ended, the prosperity of the era that followed left teenagers with something they weren’t previously accustomed to – disposable income. And it was no secret as to what they wanted to spend it on – music, cars, and especially, Levi’s jeans – just like their heroes of the big screen. Once actors such as James Dean and Marlon Brando were seen in their indigo-dyed denim, every teenager in America followed. For the boys, it was all about white t-shirts, combat boots, leather jackets and straight legged, cuffed hem jeans (think Fonzie). The girls preferred their jeans to be paired with bobby socks, oxford shirts, and saddle shoes.

Fads, especially regarding clothing, may easily come and go, but Levi’s have always had a staying power that is unrivaled in the fashion world. Through the 60s and 70s, they remained high on the list of preferred clothing and continue to do so to this day. In the 80s, vintage pairs from earlier times became a highly sought commodity, especially in Japan, where they bought up as many pairs of 1950s-era jeans as they could. Today, vintage jeans can still carry a hefty price tag, especially pre-1970s jeans with the big letter E on the little red back pocket tag. Jeans that possessed a coveted red-line stitch on the inner seam also were considered a rare find, at least until the company reissued the dark denim duds from yesteryear.

And after all these years, one thing is certain. If the red in “red, white and blue” is represented by a can of Coca-Cola, the blue is most certainly represented by a pair of Levi jeans. For over a hundred years now, they have withstood the test of time and become permanently ingrained within the culture – a virtually indestructible fashion that will likely remain on clothing store racks long after we’ve all moved on.

Did you have a favorite pair of Levi’s that you wore until they eventually disintigrated? We’d love to hear all of your memories of these iconic jeans in our comments section below, as we tip our hats to a truly American fashion, here at Retroland.

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