A Short History of Levi’s 501 Jeans

Picture of a selection of jeans at St Cyr vintage

They are one of St Cyr’s best sellers, but what makes Levi’s 501 jeans so popular?

Come to St Cyr Vintage and you’ll find Levi’s galore! From trucker jackets to jeans our best selling range is always Levi’s 501 jeans. Our shop stocks a large selection of colours – including stonewash, light blue and grey – as well as sizes 23″ – 42″, there really is something for everyone.

And that’s just the point; Levi’s developed practical clothing to be worn by everyone and has done for some 145 years. In 1872 company founder Levi Strauss teamed up with Jacob Davis, a Reno Nevada tailor. The two worked together a design patent, which rivets the pocket corners on men’s trousers to make them stronger. This is noted as being the invention of the blue jean, but before ‘jeans’, they were first known as ‘waist overalls’.

The Original Design

The wait overalls design feature details such as back pocket with ‘Arcuate stitching’, a watch pocket, suspender buttons and a rivet in the crotch, which changed over the years with fashion and consumer demands.

Levi’s 501 jeans still feature back pocket(s) with the TM Arcuate stitching and red Tab.

By 1901 the garments were now simply known as ‘overalls’ and were hugely popular, thanks to their reputation for strength. The design now had two back pockets, with belt loops added in 1922. It wasn’t until 1936 when a red tab is first placed onto the right back pocket of the overalls, with the word ‘Levi’s’, to help identify them against copies.

‘The Tab is created to differentiate Levi’s overalls from the many competitors in the marketplace who were using dark denim and an Arcuate stitch. We had not yet trademarked the Arcuate so other companies were using it in direct imitation of us.’

Levi Strauss & Co (LS&CO)

There have been many design amendments to the overalls including replacing the rivets, with wearers complaining of scratching furniture, and removing the suspender buttons altogether in 1937.

Rivets still feature on Levi’s 501 jeans, as shown here on the front pockets

Jeans for a New Generation

Having still managed to maintain production through WWII, despite conservation of its primary material cotton, 1947 brought the company its post-war version of the now trademark registered 501 overalls. And, as we know, post-war consumer America brings a lot of change! For LS&CO one of the biggest social changes is having jeans replacing the word ‘overalls’.

‘Teenagers began calling the product “jeans” in the 1950s. No one really knows why the word became associated with the men’s overalls, but teenagers adopted the phrase and it became the term used by all manufacturers.’

Levi’s 901: the ‘Mom Jeans’ version of the 501s. We have lots in stock!

LS&CO also aired its first television commercial in 1966, marking the start its cult TV ads.

Vintage Following

1971 The word ‘Levi’s’ on the red Tab is now stitched in white with a capital ‘E’. This started the ‘Big E’; a vintage clothing concept with fans of the brand seeking out pre 1970 501s, which is generally identifiable with capitalised letters.  However not to be confused with later productions for LS&CO, which brought out the ‘Capital E’ jeans in 1992 due to consumer interest in vintage Levi’s.

Fun Fact: St Cyr Vintage has only ever owned and sold one pair of original Big E Levi jeans, in its 10 year existence! They are very hard to come by. We do have lots of Levi 901 ‘Mom Jeans’, in store. These are pretty rare…

picture of a customised Levi jacket featuring 'The Lost World' motif from film 'Jurassic Park'
Levi’s clothing often features customisations and can be sought after! This jacket has now been sold.

Did you spot this customised ‘Lost World’ Levi’s jacket on our Instagram feed?

Last year the company celebrated the 145th anniversary of the invention of the jean. So whether you’re after a vintage pair of 501s, Big E, straight-leg or Mom Jeans, Levi’s 501s continually prove to be a timeless clothing staple.

Words by Emily B

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