The LEVI 501 has been a fashion icon on the worldwide fashion scene since the mid 1900's. With a history dating more than 150 years, we will try and provide you with an overview of highlights relating to the birth and development of this famous jean. Who could have predicted 150 years ago when Levi Strauss & Co. introduced the first “pantaloons” now known as jeans, that they would be the precursor to what is today one of the worlds most popular fashion statements. Not only did the jean predate such commonly popular items as T-Shirts, but even underwear as we know it today.
While pop-culture products such as T-Shirts were actually born in Europe, jeans found their birth in the United States.
In the early 1850’s Levi Strauss & Co. was founded and by mid 1850’s had begun to product waist high overalls or “pantaloons”. By about 1873, Levi Strauss and a man named Jacob Davis collaborated and patented the riveting process for reinforcing stress points on the overalls and for which vintage Levi’s have been identified and become famous. In 1878, the first synthetic indigo dye is invented by a German chemist named Adolf Von Baeyer. This synthetic indigo dye, would be used by Levi in the coloring of the denim fabric giving their products the rich deep blue coloring so highly sought after for both vintage pieces and retro vintage created today.
In the 1870’s, the “XX” reference is first used by Levi Strauss to describe the quality and weight of the fabric and is understood to mean “Double Extra Heavy”.
In 1886, following a famous publicity stunt (using two horses to stretch a pair of their jeans) to prove the strength of their products, Levi Strauss introduced the picture of two horses on their leather patch to it’s Number One overalls, later known as Model 501. A white oil cloth or linen label was used for the Number Two overalls, which became known as Model 201. These two Model Numbers were used to differentiate the quality and weight of the fabrics used. By 1890, Levi Strauss & Co. added a watch pocket and back “Cinch” to the 501. It is claimed that the fasteners for these early cinches were hand made. Details on this model included a crotch rivet , suspender buttons , leather patch and one hip pocket with a copper rivet bar tack. Selvage was found on the inside waist part of the jean and a doughnut button was used on the fly front.
In 1905, Levi added a second back pocket to it’s overalls. The detail features from the previous model remained and the cinch back became machine made. They were also using a flax for thread.
In 1922, Levi added belt loops to the 501. Also in that year, Cone Mills became the sole supplier of denim for Levi Strauss & Co. In 1929, Cone Mills stopped producing 9 oz. denim and began producing 12.5 oz. denim fabric. In addition to the continued use of the Doughnut Button, some of the jeans were also made using the current “logo type”buttons we know today. However, the centre of these buttons was a little recessed compared to those today. The thread of the selvage wasn’t red line, but was blue or grey line.
The big addition to this model was the introduction of the famous RED TAB we know on Levi jeans today. The original RED TAB was printed in capital Letters “LEVI’S” and was printed on only one side of the RED TAB. Also there was no registered trademark symbol on the RED TAB. This model was only manufactured for a little less than a year.
With the introduction of this model, a number of changes were to be introduced. The first was the suspender buttons were taken off, although they were still available separately. The copper rivets for the back pockets were behind a bar tack and changed to hidden rivets. Levi was now using yellow and orange color thread . Also during this model period, red thread was used on the selvage . This was also the last model to feature the famous crotch rivet. During this period, the Ladies Levi was introduced and the model was known as the 701.
Most all the details in previous jeans continued with this model with the exception of the crotch rivet which was eliminated. In addition they changed from copper rivets to steel rivets during the period of this model. This is also the last model in which the back cinch or martingale was featured.
WORLD WAR II MODEL – 1942 TO 1946
Due to the war and the need to fulfill conditions set by the U.S. War Bureau, certain changes were made to the Levi 501. The rivets on the watch pocket were removed . The buttons used on the fly became plain and the arcuate stitching was removed from the back pocket but the design was then printed onto the pockets instead. A number of different button types appeared on the model including the logs type, laurel donut type, flat donut type and another logo type without the S.F. Cal on it. These changes continued until after the end of the war.
1947 MODEL – LEATHER PATCH MODEL
The arcuate stitching is back . The painted arcuate was changed back to the double arcuate. Steel rivets changed to cooper rivets and all the front buttons were logo type. This was the last model for the leather patch and in the early 1950’s on this model, the back belt loop was off-centered to the left side . The Register Trademark “R” appeared on the RED TAB and the word LEVI’S was printed on both sides in the 1950’s.
A very big change to this model was the leather patch replaced by the paper patch. One of the paper patches used during the 1950’s contained the phrase “EVERY GARMENT GUARANTEED” and the second patch used in the early 1960’s did not have this phrase printed on the patch. This was also the last model in which the hidden rivet appeared. It was also during this same period when the Levi 501ZXX was introduced. Due to the increased popularity of the Zipper, this 501 Zipper Model was created. On this particular product, they used the two types of paper patches described above but also included the use of a leather patch as well. Other detail features of the standard Levi 501 were also found on this jean.
1966 FIRST HALF MODEL
Major changes to this model included no more hidden rivets on the back pocket as they were changed to bar tack and the lot number changed from 501XX to 501. This was the last model to feature the famous “BIG E”. They used a few different types of patches during this period including some that contained the letters A , S , or F denoting a quality marking on the product with A standing for Excellent, S for Satisfactory and F for Failure. In addition some of the tags were noted as 501XX, some 501-0117 and some simply 501. This was also the last model for single stitch on the back pockets. During the late 60’s their was also a light weight leather patch used.
1966 SECOND HALF MODEL (1970-1983)
With this model, the paper patch remained as well as the red line however the RED TAB E changed from “E” to “e”. In addition, the single stitch on the hip pocket changed to chain stitch . In the 1970’s Levi started to put a caution tag sewn inside the jean. At first the tag suggested shrinkage of about 8% then later changed to shrinkage of about 10%. The paper tag also contained the printing “CARE INSTRUCTIONS INSIDE GARMENT” . This was also the last model for the red line selvage. In 1983, cone mills changed it’s denim production from a 29 inch loom to 61 inch loom and this resulted in the disappearance of the red line selvage.
Numerous "New" Vintage Products have been created in the last decade, but none can compare to the character and stature of a truly vintage LEVI 501.