The wonderful world of Levi’s jeans. Apart for a few brief affairs with other brands I have stuck religiously to Levi’s. Well, since I started buying my own clobber anyways. Mind you, even when I was a kid I remember my mother buying orange label, zip fly, straight leg ones, and most likely flared ones too when I was even younger. I was a lot more pragmatic about jeans back when I was a kid, as they were just something that stopped me grazing my knees and kept my legs warm. It was when I first went out with my own cash to Mr. Byrite down the Roman Road, that I realised there was a whole world of jeans. Lee and Wrangler were the two I clocked, but I always found myself going back to the Levi’s orange tag ones. I did dabble a bit later with Lee. When I was Casual I got some super faded Lee and did the casual trademark of splitting the seams at the bottom of the leg, so they would flare over your Diadora trainers, or in my case desert boots, which was my preferred foot apparel. In those days I also tried Wrangler, and did the other Casual trademark thing of cutting the bottom seam off the leg and fraying the bottom inch. I remember really liking this look with tan desert boots, or a brightly coloured pair of Kickers.
Skip forward a year or so into the mid ’80s. I was rummaging through a denim emporium in Romford’s Quadrant Arcade called Saddle Tramp and I saw my first pair of Levi’s 501s. That was one of those bolt of lightning moments. Like falling in love at first sight. I don’t know if it was the jeans themselves being so different, or that by this age my attention to clothing detail was becoming dangerously obsessive, but whatever it was these were very different to any Levi’s I’d seen before. Firstly they were dark. All my jeans up to that point were bought already faded. Not these though. These were so blue they were almost black. Then there was the feel of them. This denim was different to the soft orange tag ones I was used to. This denim was hard, stiff, waxy and, well… cold I guess. This denim actually felt unpleasant to the touch. Then there were the seams. Particularly inside. All finished with securing selvedge stitching. These jeans were built to last. Then there was the button fly. That was like discovering your father is actually a Martian from the planet Zorg. I was so shocked. My mouth must have been seriously agape. After too many experiences where the little pin that keeps the zipper up had broken off and having to relegate almost new jeans to the bin (this never happened with any of my Levi’s by the way) a button-up front was just so logical. Lastly there was the red tag. I’d heard of red tag Levi’s, but never seen a pair. On the blue-black denim that little red tag stood out a mile. Like a beacon. A beacon of cool. My heart was fluttering now. I’d even got that knot of excitement in my stomach. I had to have these jeans. How could anyone on God’s green earth not want to have these jeans. These were like a rite of passage into being a real jean wearer. Like you were joining a club. The Levi’s 501 club. A club that back then had few members, as this was before Levi’s incredibly popular mid ’80s ad campaign that turned them into a global phenomena. When I tried them on they actually felt a bit weird. I was initially put off by that hard waxy coldness of new denim. But when I looked in the mirror I was sold. These were smart jeans. Not the soft faded look of the Casual. I could see immediately that trainers, Pringle jumpers and Fila tracksuit tops wouldn’t work here. There would have to be a different look for these. Luckily, a ’50s obsessed friend of mine had recommended I watch Rebel Without a Cause. He’d even lent me a couple of books on James Dean. This was the look to go with these jeans. If I were to wear these, out would have to go the roll necks, polo shirts, v neck jumpers and trainers, and in would come heavy plain white t-shirts, flannel shirts and a Harrington jacket. Preferably a bright red one, similar to the jacket James Dean wore in Rebel. The hair too. No floppy Casual side partings here. Jeans of this caliber required a sculpted look. I had thick hair back in those days, so it was gonna have to be a side parted quiff. Held in place with a traditional pomade. I was a hairdresser back then too, so was equally obsessed with hair styles, as well as clothes. So that was it. Idly wandering into a denim emporium while on my lunch break had lead to a whole new focus. To be honest I was tiring of the casual look a bit, except for the desert boots, so was probably subliminally looking for that hot new thing to get excited about.
A little later the world went Levi’s mental and they just couldn’t get enough of the ’50s looking dark blue 501 cool. One of the campaigns I thought was really clever was to put up a limited number of billboards across the country with a pair of 501 pasted to them, as well as the usual slogan stuff. The idea was to encourage people to steal them. And even better, these jeans had “stolen” silk screened on the front of the leg. The idea was to film these billboards and the people stealing them and make an advert from those clips. That must have been one of the first guerilla ad campaigns.
As with any small fashion wave that goes global the founding elite try to go one better, or just move on, and in this case they became a sub-cult of Levi’s devotees that would only wear authentic American second hand ones. Not just any old Levi’s though. No. These had to be pre 1970. They had to have red selvedge stitching inside the leg and the Levis embroidered on the tag was written all in upper case. As e was the only letter that changed, when Levi’s switched from embroidering their tags from upper to lower case (except the L), these vintage Levi’s were given the moniker Big E Levi’s. American Classics on Endel Street was a fantastic place to find these authentic Levi’s (and still is), but at over 100 quid, in the mid ’80s and on a hairdresser’s salary, well let’s just say they remained a dream item.
I’ve proudly stuck to my raw denim shrink-to-fit 501s right up to this day. Even when it was almost impossible to find them in the terrible denim decade of the ’90s, where everything went colored and messed with. I do admit to a brief affair with Evisu jeans at that Levi’s low-point, as they were making a red flash model that was based on the 501 from the ’40s. They also made a cinch-back pair modeled on the early 1900s 501. Evisu, before they started to go over the top and put paint all over their jeans, were the only jeans company to rival the mighty Levi Strauss & Co. There was even a rumor that they used original Levi’s looms. For me the power of the Levi’s 501 cannot be over estimated. I still remember very clearly the feeling of empowerment and awe I got that day in the Saddle Tramp changing room. And still get to this day, when I pull on those stiff cold raw things in yet another cramped changing room.
A small disclaimer. I am in no way a Levis specialist. Do a few web searches and you’ll find some people with an encyclopedic knowledge of Levis, their history and models. I’m just someone who got smitten by them and never really moved on. For a brief history of the various models see the below clips by vintage clothiers Eleven Clothing.