150 Years of Levi's: 5 Iconic Vintage Moments in 501s

“The blue denim look... is the uniform of the world, the way we all want to look when we’re feeling easy, moving fast—a way of life.” 

Vogue in 1971

20th of May 2023 marks 150 years since the denim jean as we know it was born. Later known as Levi’s 501s, the straight-leg genderless blue jean has transformed the way we all dress. You’d be hard pressed to find someone in the Western world who hasn’t owned a pair of blue jeans, and it all started on this date 150 years ago.

This blog takes a look back at 5 iconic vintage moments of Levi’s 501s, from novelty to ubiquity.

1. Levi Strauss & Jacob Davis invented the 501s

Collage of two photographs. Left photograph is in black and white and shows a white man standing wearing denim jeans and a cowboy at. Right image is a close up of a denim jean metal rivet.

Left: John Wayne wearing Levi’s 501s, 1939. Right: 1873 revit on vintage Levi’s jeans.

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Levi Strauss and tailor Jacob Davis invented the 501s in 1873. The story goes that Davies the tailor was looking to strengthen denim jeans. He used these things called metal rivets to hold waist lines and pockets together & to stop the denim ripping. Their popularity meant he needed to find himself a business partner - this is where the infamous Levi Strauss came in. They patented the denim jean with the rivets on this day 150 years ago.

Today, spotting fake vintage Levi’s is super easy.

2. Lady Levi’s 501s

A black an white photograph of four young white women all wearing dark denim jeans, checked shirts and cowboy hats standing in a ranch.

Group of 5 women wearing Levi’s 501s, c.1935-45, Levi’s archive.

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In 1934, Levi’s put out ‘Lady Levi’s 501s’. These Levi’s jeans were spun as a sort of sportswear for women on holiday -specifically on holiday in Western America when visiting one of ‘dude ranches’ (with the rise of Western films, working ranches became a destination!). From here, Levi’s denim became something of an accessory to a lifestyle rather than a necessary item for manual work.

Lady Levi’s died in the 1960s, as cool & hip young teens didn’t want to wear what their mum’s wore. Because of this these vintage Levi’s are a pretty rare find nowadays.

3. Levi’s 501s in Hollywood 

Collage of 2 images. Left photograph is black and white and features a large group of white men all wearing denim levis 501s, leather jackets and motorbike hats. They are mid walk down a suburban street. Right black and white photograph of a woman wearing a bikini and levis 501s as she lies on a bench and lifts two hand weights above her head.

Left: Still from The Wild One featuring Marlon Brando, 1953. Right: Marilyn Monroe, Philippe Halsman for LIFE magazine, 1952

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You can’t discuss vintage Levi’s 501s looks without speaking Hollywood’s Levi’s love and Marilyn Monroe. 

Motorcycle clubs had a big influence on Hollywood and Levi’s. Young men and some women in the 1950s and 1960s would ride around on motorbikes wearing leather jackets and denim jeans, in particular Levi’s 501s. This inspired Hollywood to make films such as The Wild One, featuring Marlon Brando in Levi’s 501s.

Just before her big Hollywood hit, Gentleman’s Prefer Blonds, Marilyn Monroe was interviewed for Life Magazine wearing Levi’s 501s. She would soon become a style icon and sex symbol of the decade, inspiring a generation of denim wearing youths, particularly young women.

4. Levi’s 501s: Laundrette Advert

Collage of four horizontal video snapshots lined up vertically. Shows a scene of a man entering a launderette, taking his clothes off and washing them.

Stills from Levi’s Stonewash Levi’s 501 advert, BBH, 1985

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Levi’s TV adverts in the 80s were hotly anticipated content. The defining Levi’s launderette advert featured model Nick Kamen stripping off in a laundrette to Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’.

The aim of the ad was to make Levi’s ‘cool’ again. Their Hollywood popularity had waned over the years and Levi’s denim needed a new face. The ad and the styling is taken from the 50s rather to revive that same ‘cool’ of the Hollywood era. 

5. Vintage Levi’s 501s Value Increases with Time

Photograph of a distressed pair of vintage Levis 501s lying flat on a worn grey floor.

A pair of vintage Levi’s jeans from the 1880s valued at $87,000, CNN.

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After the many eras and iterations of Levi’s denim, Levis 501s vintage jeans are coveted collectors items. In 2022, a pair of vintage Levi’s 501s from the 1880s were uncovered from a mine shaft in New Mexico and sold at auction for $87,000. Yes, $87k! The buyer has even said that they’re still in relatively good nick and could be worn - despite obvious wear and tear.

Vintage Levi's Today

If you had to sum up Western 20th century in a single item of clothing, it would be vintage denim jeans, specifically Levi’s 501s. Whether that be early Levi’s vintage clothing, 50s or 80s Levis vintage jeans.

ROKIT’s vintage clothing collection is filled with vintage Levi’s clothing including a dedicated collection to our one true love, vintage Levi’s 501s. You really can’t go wrong.

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