10 Moments in the History of Denim

Elizabeth

In honor of the 75th anniversary of women’s jeans, we asked the original inventor of women’s jeans, Levi Strauss & Co., for their favorite moments in denim history. Here are the facts from Levi’s historian Lynn Downey, herself:

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1873: Levi Strauss & Jacob Davis invent the blue jean when they receive a U.S. patent to make the first riveted men’s work pants. They are granted patent #139,121 on May 20, 1873.

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1934: Levi Strauss & Co. creates the first jean for women: Lady Levi’s. Women had been wearing men’s 501 jeans for years, and the company decides that they deserve more feminine denims for both work and play.

1940s: During and after World War II, American soldiers wear their Levi’s jeans on leave while serving in Europe and Japan, giving a global audience their first look at the 501 jean. Some give away or sell their jeans to local citizens.

1950s: While the first women’s jeans had a button fly, the zipper becomes standard in the 1950s. A more traditional femininity prevails in this post-war decade, and buttoning up the fly of a pair of jeans is not socially acceptable.

1953: Marlon Brando wears 501 jeans in The Wild One, the quintessential bad-boy-in-denim movie. This starts the link between rebellion and denim; a character asks Brando what he is rebelling against and he replies, “What do you got?” One of a number of films in which a character wearing denim is code for rebel.

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Early 1960s: Nylon is first used as a stretch material in women’s jeans, and the new products are quickly adopted by teenagers. Levi Strauss & Co. creates its first pair of Stretch Lady Levi’s jeans in 1963.

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1970s: Young men and women embellish their jeans and jackets with beads, sequins, embroidery and patches to turn their clothing into canvases for self-expression. Levi Strauss & Co. unveils the Levi’s Denim Art Contest in 1974, which gives consumers the chance to showcase their talents in customizing denim.

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1989: Jubilant, jeans-clad young people sit on the Berlin Wall before it is demolished. Photographs of former East Germans in previously-banned denims are seen around the world.

2003: During the celebration of its 150th anniversary as a company, and the 130th anniversary of the invention of jeans, Levi Strauss & Co. acquires the world’s oldest pair of 501 jeans for its Archives. Dating to 1879, they are valued at over $150,000.

2008: Women’s jeans come full circle with the introduction of the Boyfriend Fit. Featuring a button fly and slightly oversized silhouette, the Boyfriend is an updated version of those first 501 jeans worn by Western women before Lady Levi’s came along. The skinny jean (first introduced by Levi’s in the 1960s for teens) also makes a come-back.

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