February 26th marks the 187th birthday of the late Levi Strauss, born in Buttenheim, Bavaria in 1829. What you really need to know about him, though, is this: With the help of his business partner, Jacobs Davis, he not only developed an innovative way to reinforce dungaree work bottoms with steel rivets, but secured the patent for it in 1873. Do you know what this means? The first jeans in history were born.
And when this happened…
“Eureka!” whooped Mr. Strauss, throwing his ten gallon hat in the air while clicking his heels.*
“Whoopee!” replied Davis, dancing a happy jig around him.
“Okay, then!” said their neighbor Joe, who was there to borrow a cup of sugar and didn’t want to feel left out.
The three proceeded to high-five, bump hips and skip arm-in-arm to the local saloon for celebratory drinks.
What eventually transpired, of course, is that men who held jobs in hard labor and wore the denim trousers for durability quickly realized that they also looked cool. Regularly-pants’d people soon took notice. They wanted to adorn their legs in indigo-dyed cotton, too!
Ask and ye shall receive, Jeeve. Levi Strauss’ newly instated team of blue jean fairies began to churn out crisp denim for the masses, each piece oozing an inherent, intangible something — what the French call je ne sais quoi, only 100 percent American — that would never get old, could never feel stale. Even better, the designs were like blank slates, pieces you could count on working anytime and with anything. Something to make your own.
James Dean, with the help of leather jackets and white T-shirts, lent his pair a brooding, rebellious appeal. Slouchy and tight in all the right places, the utilitarian design read girl-next-door-sexy on Marilyn Monroe. Soundtracked by the soulful lyrics of Marvin Gaye (also known for his masterful work with denim-on-denim), ’80s model and heartthrob Nick Kamen’s perfectly beat up blues proved to look even better coming off in his iconic “Levi’s Laundrette” commercial.
There was moment at the turn of the 21st century when the world began to forget what made old school Levi’s so great in lieu of the stretchier, rhinestone-covered contenders, but we can glaze over that bleak period as a forgivable stretch of misjudgment. By late 2013, normcore rode in with its 501s in tow and, while the trend’s ugly shoes and dad fleeces proved fleeting, the pants ushered in an era of highly personalized street style. No longer were the timeless jeans resigned to a lifetime of bolstering nondescript, boring clothes; there was too much fashion fun — Fur-lined mules! Sparkly socks! Embroidered bombers! — to be mixed in instead.
This is the beauty of a Levi Strauss design: It can handle anything.
*While all the hard facts here are accurate, details may or may not have been embellished for dramatic effect.