LEVI STRAUSS: A HISTORY OF AMERICAN STYLE
Levi Strauss and blue denim jeans are embedded in our culture. Walking through this exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) was like spending time with old friends: surrounded by love, reminiscing about the past and comforted by warm memories.
On February 13th an exhibition called “Levi Strauss, a History of American Style” opened at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. It covered the history of Levi Strauss & Co from its early beginnings as a dry goods business serving the miners during the gold rush of the 1850s to today.
Showing over 250 curated items spanning 153 years of history, this is the biggest public display of Levi Strauss archived material ever shown to the public. It must have taken the planning of a military maneuver and several spreadsheets to co-ordinate and move this many items from the Levi Strauss archives to the museum and then install them.
Each item is displayed with its story, letters, historic dates, and accompanying ephemera, bringing it back to life and creating its own inimitable, multidimensional story. Kudos to the historians and curators who put this together! Truly a new benchmark for a retrospective, corporate exhibition.
Set for a six-month showing, everything was of course unexpectedly closed down due to the coronavirus pandemic. I was fortunate to see it before it closed. This exhibition is too good to be over almost before it had begun. Museums have schedules that are set years in advance, but I sincerely hope the Contemporary Jewish Museum, together with the Levi Strauss archives, will be able to extend the dates — or better still, that the Museum is able to re-open before its closing date of August 9th that will allow more people to share in its exuberance.
Levi Jeans are as American as apple pie — a far cry from the Apfelkuchen or Lederhosen of Levi Strauss’s homeland in Bavaria, Germany. The exhibition tells the story of a Jewish immigrant who left Bavaria with his family when he was eighteen years old with a dream to be successful and build a better life in a free society. Living in Buttenheim, where he was born, he experienced anti-Semitism on a daily basis. This translated into living in a ghetto that segregated Jews from the rest of the town, restriction of the hours they were allowed out to a curfew, limitations on what work he could do, and experiencing persecution and physical attacks because of his religion.
Leaving Buttenheim with his mother and sister, they traveled by boat to Panama – then trekked overland across the Panamanian isthmus to board another steamer that would take them to New York. After an arduous journey of several weeks, they arrived in New York City in 1847. Re-uniting with other members of his family — seven siblings of which he was the youngest — already living in New York, he began working with them in a dry goods business they had opened. This allowed Levi to learn the business, acclimate to a new culture, and become fluent in English. After gaining his American citizenship in 1853 when he was twenty-four years old, he left for the West Coast, determined to work hard and change the trajectory of his life with the freedom and opportunity that he found in the US.
The Gold Rush had already started in 1848 on the West Coast and it is estimated 300,000 people came in search of their fortunes, setting up many little makeshift towns as they chased their dream of finding gold and becoming millionaires, spurred by stories of gold, free for the taking.
Levi had no intention of joining the miners. On the contrary, he recognized there would be a need to supply the miners with shovels, pickaxes, tents, and strong pants that would survive the rigors of panning for gold — and he would supply these items, While the miners were chasing gold, little did he realize that he was building generational gold — a legacy.
Arriving in San Francisco, Levi Strauss opened his own dry goods and clothing business on the waterfront before moving it to Sacramento Street, ready to supply the needs of the miners who flocked to the West Coast in search of their fortune. How could he have imagined — the company he was building would not only feature prominently in the history of San Francisco but its influence could one day reverberate throughout the world where the name Levi Strauss would become synonymous with blue jeans and a certain style. He certainly couldn’t have imagined that by 2020, there would be a Levi Strauss retrospective at a world-class museum in San Francisco or that the brand would be available in 110 countries worldwide and employ as many as 16,000 employees.
This is an exceptionally well-curated exhibition exhibiting items from the Levi Strauss archives. There are two concurrent tracks running throughout the Exhibition: the history of the Levi Strauss Company and secondly, the cultural history of San Francisco and how they converge. You’re reminded of events that have taken place in our recent memory and seeing where they fitted into the story of Levi Strauss.
Denim and blue jeans are the continuous links throughout the exhibition, but as the exhibition explores the landscape of this story, there are many interesting offshoots covering politics, philanthropy, American culture, music, the movie industry, Westerns, pop culture, sports, and world events.
This is an extensive exhibition and I have selected only a few of the items that were on display.
THE BIRTH OF THE BLUE JEAN
A defining moment in the history of Levi Strauss occurred in May 1873: the official “birth” of the iconic Blue Jean.
This is the date on which a patent was issued to Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis for a metal rivet that would be used to re-enforce the weakest part of their working pants, known from here on as “blue jeans.”
This is how it came about: Jacob Davis, a tailor from Reno, Nevada, and also a Jewish Immigrant who emigrated from Riga, Latvia (now Russia), had been tailoring working pants for the burgeoning mining community. The fabric he was using was supplied by Levi Strauss’s dry goods business.
Receiving complaints that the pants were ripping and not standing up to the rigors demanded by the gold miners, Jacob Davis found a way to place copper rivets in the corners of the pockets that stopped them from ripping and made the openings stronger and more secure to counteract the excessive wear. Wanting to patent his technique but being short of funds, he turned to Levi Strauss — who by this time had a successful business — and the two of them worked together on acquiring the patent for the rivet, With the new patent acquired, Davis moved to San Francisco to oversee the first manufacturing facility of blue jeans.
At this time, to re-enforce the pants even further, they decided to use a stronger fabric, denim, that was ordered from Cohn Mills in North Carolina, known as the largest producer of denim in the country. Cohn Mills was owned and operated by another Jewish immigrant, also from Bavaria, Germany. This was the blue denim fabric that became so loved and identified with Levi’s jeans.
THE 501 BLUE JEAN.
This weave and pattern were referred to as the 501 blue jean. It instantly became a bestseller, a style that has endured and changed very little over the years — now ubiquitously worn by men and women all over the world with equal confidence by workers, movie stars and presidents.
In 1886, a two-horse trademark was added, showing two horses trying to pull apart a pair of Levi’s waist overalls, symbolizing the strength of the fabric. This trademark represents one of the oldest continuously used trademarks in the world and is still featured on Levi’s jeans. If you have a pair of Levi’s’ check this fact next time you put them on, whether they are vintage or new — it’ll be there.
THE AMC GREMLIN CAR — the car that wears the pants.
In 1973, American Motors asked Levi’s to collaborate with them on the release of the 1973 Gremlin car by upholstering the interior in blue denim. Levi Strauss & Co. had recently introduced their orange label denim range so the collaboration was timely as a way to promote the fabric. The interior was upholstered in denim and included the rivets on the seat to re-enforce the covering. Thus, the Levi’s car was born. It resonated with a younger demographic and was perceived as “hip and cool” because of the denim seats.
This is how AMC described the car: “Now a Gremlin with upholstery that’s like blue denim Levi’s. Has orange stitching, the buttons, even the famous Levi’s tab on both front seats…Levi’s Gremlin. The economy car that wears the pants.”
On display is the actual Gremlin Car from the archives, impeccably upholstered in blue denim, with the rivets and the red Levi’s label usually stitched on jeans — it had never previously been on show to the public.
Photos Gary Sexton.
THE LEVI’s DENIM AMERICAN FLAG
Created by the Levi Strauss and Co. designers to commemorate the attacks that occurred on 9/11.
THE EINSTEIN LEATHER JACKET
One of the most famous items on the exhibition — and one of the most valuable — is the “Einstein leather jacket,” once owned by Albert Einstein, the Nobel prize-winning physicist. This is the first time it has been on public display. When it came up for auction at Christie’s of London, in 2016, the bidding was brisk and fast, and the eventual hammer price was 90,000 British pounds when it was bought by Levi Strauss & Co for their archives.
Einstein loved wearing this jacket and looking closely, I would say it has done some mileage and been worn well. Its fame of course came from a Time magazine cover when Einstein was photographed wearing it in 1938. Displayed at Christie’s pre-Sale in London, it was shown together with the now-famous photograph by Lotte Jacobi who had been the photographer of the Time Magazine cover. At the CJM exhibition, it is again shown in a clear display box, housing the jacket and the photograph that made it famous.
The story of the Einstein jacket revealed he had purchased it in the US in 1935 while awaiting his naturalization papers before becoming a US Citizen. The same design is featured in the Levi Strauss catalog of the 1930s when it was known as the “Menlo Cossak Jacket.”
Following Christie’s sale, the worldwide publicity for this item was priceless, and the marketing department did not miss the opportunity to capitalize on promoting the story. The publicity created new demand and it was re-introduced into the catalog in a limited edition. (There are some items in the range that are not made from denim, this being one.)
Harvey Milk, a leading AIDS activist in the turbulent 1970s, appears in his “uniform,” a white T-Shirt and Levi’s 501 Bue Jeans that he could be seen wearing around town while he campaigned.
Coming from NYC to San Francisco, Milk originally opened a camera shop in the Castro. This became a gathering place for the gay community. After two unsuccessful attempts, he became the first openly gay elected official in California when he was elected to the Board of Supervisors — a radical achievement of that time, Alas, his activism, and all the good he could have done, was cut short when he and Mayor Moscone were both shot to death at point-blank range by a disgruntled ex-councilor.
The Levi Strauss company has donated generously over the years to the AIDS cause and disseminated sorely needed informational flyers in the early stages of the epidemic to try and cut through the initial confusion by offering informed updates.
Top Photo: Gary Sexton.
THE AIDS QUILT.
There is no more powerful reminder of the onset of the AIDS epidemic than the AIDS Quilt. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when young people, especially young men, were dying from an unknown illness, Cleve Jones, a Gay rights activist, and a few like-minded friends had the idea to design a quilt to document the names of loved ones whose names would otherwise be forgotten after their deaths. The quilt would commemorate the lives of those who died too soon, succumbing to the disease that became known as AIDS.
It was called the NAMES Project Foundation and was the first of many quilts. People from cities affected by the epidemic sent in handcrafted panels to add, and the quilt now has 50,000 3 x 6-foot panels from cities all over the world — and is the largest worldwide folkloric endeavor.,
Among the company employees, there were several gay men, including some suffering from the disease. With the prejudice that was prevalent at that time, the Levi Strauss organization defied those seeking to blame the Gay community and never turned their back on their team members, continuing to make large donations and help where ever they could — including contributing to the quilt.
COWBOYS, WESTERNS, AND HOLLYWOOD
The original blue jeans were designed for their durability and gained popularity with cowboys, Western-types, and then Hollywood. Clever branding and marketing contributed to this success. A large part of the exhibition is given over to this subject with posters, movie clips, and displays.
The toughness also proved ideal for modern cowboys, rodeos, and wrangling,
As a result, the cowboy was Levi’s chosen marketing figure for some time, as illustrated with a number of original posters from the archives. Special clothing was designed that would further advance the relationship between Levi Strauss and the cowboy culture.
One of the most elegant and sophisticated men in Hollywood, Cary Grant, a leading man with a British accent, was an actor who furthered the look of blue jeans. Although known not to spend much money on his clothes, he was an elegant dresser who also liked to be seen in his blue denim. After being featured wearing western clothing in his movies, Levi’s annually offered him free clothing — a deal the thrifty actor couldn’t turn down.
This is the original letter from the archives, when Cary Grant thanks Levi’s for their offer, adding a special request:
Yes, indeed I’d welcome some of your latest style western shirts, light colors preferably (I look a Gift Horse in the mouth as you see….) because undoubtedly as you suggest, it’s your Western clothing that keeps me on the list of so-called best-dressed men.
BLUE DENIM JEANS FEATURED IN THE MOVIES.
In front of a few reconditioned theatre seats from an old movie house. the exhibition featured a tape with clips from thirteen well-known movies where the blue denim jean was worn by the actors. It was interesting to see the number of movies that featured them — this photograph is of a very young Brad Pitt, in Thelma and Louise.
A poster of Marlon Brando, on his motorcycle, in 1954, as the character Johnny Stabler from “The Wild One”, a motorcycle gang film, and James Dean, as Jett Rink, in the movie ‘Giant’ illustrated other Hollywood heartthrobs who popularized Levi’s jeans.
JAKE GYLLENHAAL, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, 2005.
Jake Gyllenhaal wore these clothes in ‘Brokeback Mountain’, a movie released in 2005. So simple, such classic western wear: a cowboy hat, white tee shirt, 501 Levi jeans, and boots, as popular then as now, with the Levi two-horse label. How did Levi’s get into Hollywood? It is universal and knows no boundaries.
BING CROSBY’S CUSTOM DENIM TUXEDO.
In 1951, Bing Crosby and a friend were on a hunting expedition in Canada. Although Bing was well dressed in the movies he appeared in, in everyday life he was a diehard fan of denim. This particular day, when he and a friend arrived at their hotel in Vancouver, he was dressed from head to toe in denim and they were turned down because it was not up to the hotel’s dress code!! Fortunately, one of the bellhops recognized Crosby and with apologies from the management, they were accommodated.
The story got back to Levi’s, who saw a marketing opportunity. They designed a denim tuxedo especially for him, using the 501 denim fabric, with a label stitched on the inside addressed to all hotels that read, “to be duly received and registered with cordial hospitality at any time under any conditions”.
During the promotion for his film, “Here comes the Groom,” he wore the jacket and attracted much attention — it was so unique and different from formal tuxedos of the time. What an amazing marketing opportunity for Levi Strauss, who of course introduced it into their catalog.
Just as an aside, in researching this information. I came across a photograph of Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake both wearing denim formal wear to an MTV awards show in 2001.
DENIM CONTEST – CLOTHING AS ART
Continuing the tradition of taking denim to its extremes was a contest introduced by Levi Strauss & Co. in the 1970s, inviting outsiders to creatively embellish their jeans as art. Here are some of the winning designs, saved in the archives.
FASHION DESIGNER COLLABORATIONS
Over the years, Levi’s collaborated with international fashion designers, using the opportunity to become better known while raising money for AIDS and HIV charities. And they were welcomed by the international fashion designers, who all want to be associated with this successful brand.
A pinafore dress with a cone-shaped bra was designed by the controversial designer Jean-Paul Gaultier for Madonna’s 1990 Blonde Ambition Tour — totally shocking at the time. It was combined with a matching jacket, the same jacket based on the original denim workingman’s jacket that thas been featured in Levi’s catalog since the beginning. A celebrity wearing a designer outfit made from Levi’s denim? It was a huge step for the purveyors of durable jeans to be in the Hollywood Designer Celebrity stratosphere.
Another designer collaboration: this time with Dolce and Gabbana. For Madonna’s Girlie Show Tour of 1993, she wore cut off denim shorts, tank top, and boots. Guess that is what spawned the fashion in cut-off denim shorts that are so prevalent today, worn by all and sundry irrespective of their age, shape or size!
Designed by Yves Saint Laurent for an AIDS benefit at Barneys in NYC in 1986, here is another Levi staple, the jeans jacket again in the fashion designer realm — a long way from a jacket that was designed for miners and workmen. It looks like it happened organically and to an extent it did, but this is a company that has always done original design and brilliant marketing. Not surprising that designers wanted to collaborate with Levi Strauss.
To quote Yves Saint Laurent: “I have often said that I wish I had invented blue jeans: the most spectacular, the most practical, the most relaxed, and nonchalant. They have expression, modesty, sex appeal, simplicity – all I hope for in my clothes.”
For her ‘Miseducation Tour’, Lauryn Hill wore this custom-designed denim shirt and pants. She was a hugely successful singer and rapper and the name refers to her most acclaimed album of 1998, an album that subsequently went on to make her extremely famous. This is an example of Levi Strauss converging with popular culture at just the right moment. The exhibit is the first time this item is being shown to the public.
Lavender velvet cropped top Lot 518 — superlow bootcut jeans customized with suede and lavender. Ribbons on pockets, and laced up seams, worn by Beyonce to the MTV music awards in 2001.
WORLD FAMOUS ARTISTS
KEITH HARING DECORATED JEANS – “THE PASSPORT EVENT”, MACY’S.
The “Passport Event” was arranged by Macy’s in 2008 to benefit the AIDS and HIV program. White 501 jeans, more or less the same design as the jeans that were launched in1873, are covered in Keith Haring’s “Radiant Baby” design with a red heart. Keith Haring passed away in 1990 from AIDS but during his lifetime he used his platform to tackle many causes, including AIDs and HIV, so it is appropriate that one of his iconic designs was repurposed for this event.
ANDY WARHOL COLLABORATION
Part of a collaboration between the Andy Warhol Foundation and Levi’s in 2005, where the proceeds were given to the non-profit Andy Warhol Foundation. The red vinyl pants are from the ‘Warhol Factor x Levi’s’ line. They are displayed with an Andy Warhol silkscreen of Levi’s 501 jeans.
Blue Levi jeans were the preferred item of clothing for Andy Warhol and he was photographed several times, working in paint-splattered jeans or “cleaned up” when he was being social. He said jeans “made by Levi Strauss are the best cut, best-looking pair of pants that has ever been designed by anyone — I want to die in my blue jeans.”
1990 – 2009. Several motorcycle teams favored denim jackets made by Levi Strauss that they then decorated with studs, crystals, and baubles, finishing with a custom logo. This is a trucker style jacket and the inside is finished with a tie-dyed Mickey Mouse t-shirt lining.
Steve Jobs had no problem knowing what he would wear each day: an Issey Miyake black turtle neck paired with a pair of Levi’s 501 Jeans. The outfit is still imitated by wanna-be founders around Silicon Valley! This pair of worn 501 Jeans, owned by Steve Jobs in the 1980s, was acquired from an auction held by Julien’s in Los Angeles, Lot 781 — the auction house to the stars and famous people. Research done on the details indicates it was worn at the time of the release of the Apple 11C. in the 1980s. Issey Miyake made a lifetime supply of the sweaters available to Jobs and Levi’s in the last few years of his life made a lifetime supply of 501 Jeans available. This was an inseverable link between Levi Strauss and Silicone valley.
MR. DAVID – DENIM BALLGOWN DESIGN.
Mr. David’s denim ruffled dress was my favorite item on the entire show and I marveled at the work. No dressmaker’s machine could stitch this fabric, so they must have used a heavy industrial machine. It looked like miles of ruffled denim had been cut and stitched — I suppose it was many yards, not miles — made into a glamorous evening gown. The fabric was studded with the historic copper rivets used on the 501 jeans. What I found most impressive was how this tough denim fabric was cut and then stitched into an elegant evening gown, fit for a drag queen. In fact. Mr. David’s drag persona was Glamamore.
I photographed this gown from every angle, and even now looking at the photographs, I cannot believe the craftsmanship that went into this item and how sophisticated and elegant a blue denim ballgown can be.
CUSTOM DECORATED 501 LEVI JEANS
A pair of white, hand-inked 501 Levi jeans were decorated using a ballpoint pen by a prisoner who was on death row for 33 years. The detailing was amazing — and I wish I knew what had happened to him and why his name was not mentioned!
The name Levi is a constant throughout American sports history, including the culmination of the Levi Stadium Sports Arena in San Francisco after they purchased naming rights in 2013.
DESIGNED FOR THE ACROSS-THE- BAY RAIDERS TEAM
US OLYMPIC TEAM UNIFORM, 1984
In 1984, Levi Strauss & Co. became the official outfitters of the uniforms for the US Olympic team, putting Levi Strauss on yet another world stage. Each athlete was outfitted from head to toe with a number of items donated by the company. The 1984 design was based on their “activewear” style at the time and included a red, white, and blue front zipped jacket with diagonal striped elastic waist sports pants and a baseball cap.
At the 1984 Olympic Games, Levi’s launched a “501 Blues” TV campaign at the Olympics — that led to a significant increase in the sales of the 501 Jean. Levi Strauss & Co. had also designed the 1980 Olympic uniforms — but it was 1984 that indelibly linked the two.
These came about through a collaboration between the Jordan branding team and Levi’s. They are the first pair of the iconic signed Air Jordans, worn by Michael Jordan in his first season, which raised $560,000 at auction after an expected bid range of $100,000 and $150,000!
That sure beats the S&P!!
Who would have thought it! Paying that sort of money for a pair of game-worn basketball shoes. Not just any shoes — the most important basketball sneakers of all time. Known as Air Jordan’s, these were made exclusively for NBA Bulls Player, Michael Jordan in 1985, customized with a left size 13 and right size 13.5, the first of a series that was made in limited collections.
Auctioned by Sotheby’s, in an auction devoted exclusively to sneakers, the online auction lasted 10 days, the bidding between 10 bidders, spanning four continents … with the bidding accelerating by $300,000 in the last 20 minutes! How’s that for excitement – nearly as good as being at the final minutes of the game!!
This sale coincided with the 35th anniversary since the first Air Jordan was made, as well as the showing of “The Last Dance” on ESPN featuring the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan’s legacy on ESPN.
The Guardian reported: “The previous auction record was $437,500 for a Nike Waffle Racing flat “Moon Shoe,” also sold by Sotheby’s.
In case you are thinking of acquiring some sports shoes to add to your portfolio, the record-making Air Jordans were sold by collector Jordan Geller, the founder of the sneaker museum Shoezeum in Las Vegas — and I do not earn a commission!
Levi Strauss & Co is one of the most recognized brands in American culture, having survived and flourished during the ups and downs of the last 153 years. Beginning as a small trading company, through clever branding and marketing, and consistently keeping up with trends, it has grown into a mammoth company beginning with the blue jeans that have come to define American style in the US and around the world. Still guided by family members in the business, it has followed the early principals set forth by Levi Strauss, the young immigrant, remaining philanthropic and giving huge sums to charity, over the life of the company. Never forgetting his Jewish roots, he was known also to have given generously to Jewish causes both in San Francisco and overseas.
Until I attended the exhibition, I had no idea of the extent of the Levi Strauss brand on our culture and on our lives. Thank you for reading — or maybe you just looked at the pictures which is fine. It was a fascinating exhibition and I wanted to share it.
THE MUSEUM. The present California Jewish Museum building had originally been a historic power substation, built in 1907 and expanded in 2008. The updating and new construction were designed by Daniel Libeskind, an internationally recognized architect, and museum design specialist.
Contemporary Jewish Museum.
736 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA, 94103
Tel: (415) 655-7800