In May 2001, a relatively new auction site called eBay had the media world abuzz. For sale was an artifact, dated to 1880, and dug up from the mud of a forgotten Nevada mining town. Web surfers stared wide-eyed as collectors bid the item up to $25,000, and then $35,000, before the auction suddenly closed with an offer of $46,532.
The item? A brittle, faded, torn-up pair of blue jeans, the oldest in existence. Their buyer was Levi Strauss & Co. “I’m still shaking,” said company historian Lynn Downey, who did the bidding for the brand.
It was a fitting end to the sale. After all, Levi’s hadn’t just made those very jeans 121 years earlier, but can also lay claim to introducing the most popular pair of pants in modern history. No, it’s not denim jeans (sailors in Genoa had worn those since the 17th century), but a specific kind of denim jeans: Levi’s button-fly 501 blues. They are jeans worn by punks and presidents. They are, as British Esquire editor Alex Bilmes has said, “the best and the simplest jeans.” And while fashion trends come and go, 501s have remained a wardrobe staple for 141 years.
Why? What is it about those jeans? “The amazing thing,” ventured Matti Leshem, CEO of branding firm Protagonist, “is that they’ve maintained the image of the outsider and the rebel for a long time, starting in the ’50s.”
Indeed so. For the first six decades of their existence, 501s were simply work pants, industrial clothing that emerged from the California gold fields. Levi Strauss and business partner Jacob Davis received a patent on rivet-seamed denims in 1873, and the “XX Waist Overall” took the name “501” in 1890. But as postwar Americans—in particular, its restless teenagers—saw heros like Marlon Brando and James Dean swaggering across the silver screen in their 501s, denim crossed its cultural Rubicon. Suddenly, Levi’s 501s became a statement, an avatar of individualism, the uniform for everyone who refused to wear one. As Leshem put it: “The democratization of power was embodied in this pair of pants.”
And it has been ever since. While Levi’s has subtly adjusted the fit and fabrics over the decades, the 501 has managed to stay in fashion and with the help of a few celebrities to define it. So when Springsteen grabbed his Telecaster for the Born in the U.S.A. album cover, or when President Obama threw the opening pitch at the 2009 Major League Baseball All-Star Game, the 501s they had on weren’t just jeans, but a communal snapshot, a reaffirmation of everything we Americans like about ourselves.
Which is quite a return on a $29 pair of denim trousers.