May 20th 2013 marks a special day in the history of jeans. Every year we like to celebrate a little on this date, but this year it’s something special; the 140th anniversary of the U.S. patent #139,121 for the improvement in fastening pocket-openings, in other words the patent for riveting jeans, which is considered the birth of blue jeans as we know them. This is an ode to the 501.
As the daily uniform for laborers of all kinds in the late 1800’s, Levi’s jeans were ubiquitous. Their simplicity and durability were legendary and demand for them continued to increase throughout the 1900’s before also extending to Europe after World War II. In the 1950s, teenage rebellion was championed by screen icon Marlon Brando after he was seen wearing them in the film The Wild One while in 1961 Marilyn Monroe made them into a style icon in the hit film The Misfits. From the peace movements of the 1960s and 1970s to the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989, they’ve been at the forefront of change across cultures and continents. Worn by both men and women as a uniform or as cut-off shorts in the sun, they have shaped and influenced the fashion world as we know it today.
To our surprise Levi’s has chosen to mark the event by breaking with the tradition of the iconic garment and introduce the first ever non-denim 501 in a four-piece collection. Naturally, Levi’s also unveils the next generation of the 501 jean, which features subtle and thoughtful changes to the design, tailoring the product for the pioneers of today.
Throughout the ages, the 501 has constantly evolved and adapted to stay relevant to each generation, while never losing its distinct heritage. The new 501 gives the wearer a slightly tighter silhouette, more comfort around the waist, it has a shallower yoke for a cleaner aesthetic and features slightly larger pockets to give room to even the latest smartphones. It also features stronger stitching and reinforced belt loops, inseams, buttonholes and cuffs.
Born from the need of stronger waist overalls reinforced with copper rivets at the point of strain, little did the miners and cowboys who originally wore them know that their blue XX jeans would one day become a fashion item. As every regular reader of this site is probably well aware, the original Levi’s jeans featured details that are long gone from the 501 of the new millennium like cinch back and suspender buttons, but the arcuate has been there since day one, which makes it one of the oldest clothing trademarks in use today.
The Two Horse leather patch design was added in 1886 to help buyers identify the brand. In 1922 belt loops were introduced as men started wearing their pants with belts and in 1936 the distinctive red tab was placed on the right back hand pocket to further differentiate the originals from imitators. No other product has been interpreted, styled or re-imagined as much as the 501 jean and Time Magazine even went as far as calling it the ‘Fashion Item of the 20th Century.’
*Please note that the 501 lot number wasn’t introduced until 1890, which actually “only” makes the 501 123 years old. When the patent expired in 1890 Levi’s began referring to their products by lot numbers. The “5” originally indicated top tier.