Rebel Rebel: How Mavericks Made the Modern World

By Chris Sullivan

A riotous history of people and things that broke the mould

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Levi's 501 xx - the Rebel Yell.

The Levi's 501 XX jean is the most iconic garment ever produced. Never has an item of clothing inspired such adoration, commanded such high prices or been the chosen mufti for so many global arbiters of taste from Clark Gable to Marilyn Monroe to Johnny Depp. It is a totally unique product. It is a true style statement. It is one of the all time great sartorial classics.

But, even though the 501 had been a prominent feature of every youth cult since World War II, by 1985 it had been totally phased out as Levi's, underestimating their audience, went for the fashion market. Apart from the obvious indignation, this act of wanton abandon caused a worldwide feeding frenzy that pushed prices of original 501s into the thousands as collectors tried to amass what was left of the once disposable work item. One pair of 1950 Anniversary Levi Jeans is currently listed on eBay for $8,000 while, on 15 June 2005,an original pair of Levi Strauss & Co 501 jeans aged over 115 years old were sold by American Randy Knight on the same portal to an anonymous Japanese collector for $60,000,00 (£33,230). More recently Levi’s bought one 19th century pair for $46,000.


Of course, such prices are a nonsense for your ever so ‘umble London style monger so thankfully the line was reissued in the nineties in all its glory under the collective title of, The Levi's Vintage range, boasting all of the companies great 20th century capital E classics, all lovingly replicated in exactly the same selvedge fourteen and a half ounce XX indigo denim with precisely the same details as when they were first dispensed.


“The classic Levi 501 XX is the staple item of any life well lived,” proclaims BBC broadcaster and style pundit Robert Elms. “All other jeans are a facsimile, a fake or at best an homage to the real originals. From cowboys to rude boys they have always been a sign of sartorial savvy.”


It seems that the stylish and informed agree: Paul Weller favours the classic 1966 slim line Levi so beloved of early Mods. “When I bought my first pair I used to hang them up and look at them like they were the crown jewels,” declares Weller. “ I still wear them. You can’t beat them.” 


Suggs  of Madness shows a distinct penchant for the 1947 XX. ”It’s the shape I like,” explains the singer. “They are quite wide and with a tiny half inch turn up look the business with a nice Florsheim Wing tip or a Bass Weejun loafer. I have a good few pairs on constant rotation. Pure classics.”


Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama are fans of the 1955 capital E, The Strokes do a narrow ripped ’66 a la Ramones as does the Arctic Monkey while Noel Gallagher once claimed the only labels he wears are Levi's and Adidas.


“I remember my first pair of Levi's 501XX, whereas I have long forgotten my first kiss” declares Elms. “As a small boy, I knew that what you grew up for was your first pair of proper Levi's. Shrinking your Levi's to your skinny boy's body was a rite of passage that every kid with an eye for a bit of schmutter had to claim.”


But the trouser’s humble beginnings weren’t quite so romantic. The unsung inventor of the Levi 501 was the immigrant Latvian tailor, Jacob Davis, who in December 1870 was commissioned by the wife of an uncommonly corpulent woodcutter to make a pair of trousers that would contain her lard arsed spouse. Paid $3 in advance, Davis used rivets he’d previously used to secure leather straps to horse blankets to fasten the trouser pockets and, eureka! A classic was born. Soon after, Davis approached his friendly haberdasher, Levi Strauss, and offered him half share of the business if he would cough up the $68 patent application fee, and the rest, as they say is history.


Subsequently, by the thirties almost every American owned a pair of jeans that, although popularized by the recent wave of cowboy films and their stars John Wayne and Gary Cooper, were still seen as thorough going work wear. By the late forties hep cats such as actor Robert Mitchum, painter Jackson Pollock and writer Norman Mailer were wearing the item out of an evening without their tool in their hands. But, the seismic shift came in 1953   when Marlon Brando, sported his 1947 501 xx as Johnny Strabler in the controversial movie, The Wild One, that, based on a real life incident in 1947 in Holister, California (whereby gangs of leather and Levi's bikers, mostly young disenfranchised ex servicemen, went on the rampage and caused a bit of havoc) not only imbued the American middle classes with a fear of the rebel per se but, caused leathers, jeans and the motorcycles to become symbols of youth rebellion. Ipso facto sales of all exploded. Next up in 1955 came James Dean who, as teenage malcontent, Jim Stark, in the   hugely contentious picture, Rebel Without a Cause, wore jeans , a  red wind cheater and biker boots and cemented the concept among many parents and the middle classes that the jean was indeed the root of all evil.  Consequently, in the fifties most US schools banned denim and so Levi's became the must have item.  Brando and Dean wore theirs everywhere while singer Eddie Cochrane was rarely seen in anything else.


 But while Levi's continued to storm the US through the 1950s, in the UK they were almost impossible to obtain. “I saw my first pair in 1947 or 48” remembers painter Peter Blake "but it wasn’t until the early '60s that I took possession of a pair. That’s how scarce they were.”  


During the '60s style icons Steve McQueen, Bob Dylan,  The Rolling Stones, Andy Warhol and John Lennon had made the 501XX their own, each doing something slightly different with this most versatile pant while the 1969 movie, Easy Rider, of once again stamped Levi's rep as the only uniform for the maverick non-conformist.


By now Levi's were readily important in to the UK and became standard issue for young Modernist’s who aped Steve McQueen’s every stylish nuance. This penchant was handed down to their younger brothers who claimed the item as the quintessential skinhead/ suede head silhouette. The mantle was then taken up by punk rockers, such as Sid Vicious and The Ramones and passed onto early eighties groovers and rockabillies such as, The Stay Cats, who, infatuated by everything fifties, replicated the ideal. It was then that all manner of jean crimes were   committed – stone wash, stretch denim, pre wash and all manner of despicable horrors.


“You might buy these pre-washed jeans that come faded but you cannot beat a pair of jeans that you wash and fade out yourself,” opines Adam Cooper of the Covent Garden store American Classics, the UK’s main purveyor of the Levi's Vintage range. “The more you wash them the more comfortable they become and the better they look. You cannot fake that.”


As  for yours truly. I favour the 1955 XX that has a generous, thoroughly work wear cut. I leave them unwashed for as long as I can (usually about a year), initially only wearing them on special occasion s and, when they become noticeably dirty, I freshen them up by putting them in the freezer for a day. If that doesn’t work as well as I’d like, I hang them in the shower and spray them with cold water. My last port of call, before I wash them in a soapy warm wash and suffer both shrinkage and fading, is to wash them in a 30% degree machine wash adding half a cup of white vinegar which does the job admirably. By this point however I’ve usually bought a new pair that as a rule, if treated well, last me some ten years.  In my opinion Levi's 1955 XX selvage are the only jean worthy of consideration while the skinny jean is an aberration befitting only an 11 year old and, is so old hat and so not right for 2017, it is a complete and utter joke while stepping out in a pre ripped jean is a complete nonsense whose wearer- whether male or female- deserves a good flogging.


For the jean aficionado there is only one item and that is the Levi 501 XX selvedge no matter the vintage. 

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