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Levi’s celebrates 150 years since the creation of the 501 model

What began in 1873 as a patent for copper rivets for work pants has become over the past 150 years the most iconic and influential piece of clothing ever created. A canvas for a style that breaks the rules and expresses itself freely. The 501 jeans have transcended the boundaries of time and culture, an original piece adored in a unique way by each generation.

The 501 Originals story begins with Jacob Davis and an innovation in workwear: copper rivets for canvas pants. An instant hit, Davis pitched the copper-riveted waist jumpsuit to his product supplier, Levi Strauss. The two would later team up for a denim and duck canvas version of the model – patented in 1873, the model would become known as the 501.

By 1918, profits for Levi Strauss & co. were at an all-time low. The Stern brothers — grandsons of Levi Strauss, who had taken over the company after his death — and their new head of production, Milton Grunbaum, focused on improving the durability of the 501 jeans, according to customer feedback. For example, belt buckles were added to overalls in response to changes in fashion and consumer desires. By 1925, 501 Originals  brought dizzying profits.

During the 1930s, Levi’s became a staple of Western workwear. From a favorite model among cowboys and rodeo riders, Levi’s ends up translating the romance of the West into its advertisements. Furthermore, Vogue published an article recommending 501 jeans for women on farm vacations as a new trend. In 1939, John Wayne wore a pair of 501 Originals with the hem turned up – in the movie Stagecoach -, starting a long-lasting relationship with Hollywood.

However, it wasn’t until the Second World War that 501 jeans came into the limelight. From an item dedicated to workwear, trousers – with a more pleated fit on the leg and without back buttons and straps – were now seen as casual wear. Bikers, artists, musicians and most importantly teenagers have embraced 501 Originals for their durable and utilitarian style. Plus, they became a cool, out-of-the-box statement thanks to Marlon Brando in 1953’s The Wild One.

In the 1960s, 501 jeans were a staple of subcultures everywhere. They were worn at Woodstock, during the Civil Rights movement and at the Vietnam protests, as well as by the Mods and Rockers subcultures in Britain. Their presence is becoming more and more constant in iconic films, and even in the case of Bob Dylan, they make their presence on the album cover. They have become synonymous with youth as well as the concept of counterculture, with the model often banned in schools. An act that contributed even more to the teenagers’ love for the 501.

Throughout the 70s and 80s, 501 jeans went global. They are becoming a staple of black markets, especially those in the former Soviet Union. In Japan, as the popularity of edgy clothing has grown, vintage 501 Originals are becoming a must-have. Rock stars like Kate Bush and Kim Gordon wore them torn and worn, while hip-hop stars like Run D.M.C. and N.W.A preferred black and baggy. Tech icons like Steve Jobs wore them as did bikers in Oakland, Chicanos in L.A. and Bobos from Paris.

Named by Time magazine in 1999 as the “fashion item of the 20th century”, the 501 jean has continued its successful rise as an iconic item well into the 21st century. Levi’s continues to impress this season with the introduction of the 501 ’54 for men and 501’81 for women. With the new 501 styles launching this year, the next 150 years of a unique, durable and stylish item will be ensured.