I immigrated from New Zealand to the United States for college, and except for one year, I’ve been here ever since. Before that, my mum, older sister and I lived with my grandparents in Auckland after a stay in Canada for my dad’s work. Mum’s family, the Wihongi whānau, are from the Bay of Islands — a little town near Kaikohe called Awarua. I’m a proud Māori; my tribes are Ngā Puhi and Ngāti Rehua.
I moved to San Francisco to study history and eventually got a graduate degree. I worked in business history in San Francisco, starting with the cell phone industry in high tech and moving into cars for the American Automobile Association (AAA), then in 2014, I jumped at the chance to work for Levi Strauss & Co, a brand with a storied history and that I knew and loved.
Levi’s 501 jeans began as simple work pants and have transformed over the years to become a style staple worn everywhere, from the boardwalk to the catwalk. For 50 years, they were a working garment, and then they began to evolve. They were born in the American West, so cowboys were among the early wearers, and from the 1930s and beyond they were considered cowboy clothing. So much of them is tied to the West and its history.
It’s 150 years since the iconic Levi’s 501s were born — and their legacy continues. Originally from New Zealand, US-based historian Tracey Panek has her own interesting heritage, but devotes herself to examining this one.
World War II is when 501s went abroad for the first time, as GIs wore them when they weren’t in uniform. World War II also led to the modern 501s, with changes like the back cinch being removed. Fast forward to the end of the 1960s, and the shift to young people was huge. By the end of the decade, young people were choosing jeans and 501s as their uniform; think of Woodstock in 1969 — it was awash with denim.
That evolution in terms of the company’s focus and what happened to the pants themselves changed the trajectory of the 501. Now they’ve been worn by celebrities past and present. Marlon Brando rebelled in them in The Wild One, Bruce Springsteen rocked them on the cover of Born in the USA, Steve Jobs wore them to introduce the iPod, and Madonna and Beyoncé cut them off, owning them for their stage shows.
Levi’s fans have been the foundation of our success over the years — they’re loyal and live in their Levi’s. There have been some campaigns that have increased awareness of 501 jeans as well — including “Travis”, the advertisement that launched women’s 501s in 1981, and the “Button Your Fly” campaign directed by Spike Lee in the 1990s. On Boxing Day 1985, UK television viewers watched as heartthrob Nick Kamen walked into a laundromat, stripped down to his boxers in front of incredulous onlookers and tossed his Levi’s 501 jeans into a washer. Dubbed “Laundrette”, this commercial saw Levi’s 501 shrink-to-fit jeans’ popularity skyrocket in Europe and cemented their place in advertising history.
There are few products that facilitate human experiences like Levi’s 501s. These jeans transcend culture, geography, gender and language. For 150 years, people have lived in Levi’s, and that’s led to a lifetime of stories woven into the fabric of the 501. Successful products often start with a luxury item that makes its way down the economic ladder and becomes more affordable for people, like cell phones and cars. With 501s, it’s the opposite. These jeans started with blue-collar workers and made their way up and out into the broader world. That’s one of the distinctive characteristics that makes them so accessible to such a wide variety of people.