Do you live in your jeans? Nowadays we've got jeggings, jean shorts, jean jackets and even jeans shoes, which probably should be burned in a fire and never spoken about again. But people decades ago lived in their jeans for a different reason - they were meant for work. In 1879, the slogan for Levi's, which made the first pair of blue jeans in 1873, was "[f]or men who toil." Now they're basically for everyone who wants a really good fit and a pair of pants that matches with everything, but obviously, things were different back then.
The original Levi's factory is located in San Francisco, and has been ever since 1853. As you can imagine, they keep thousands of pairs of jeans there, pairs that are current, and others that remind us what past designs look like. It's there that they keep the oldest pair of jeans in their archive, which are 138-years-old.
And you thought your denim from middle school was getting on in years.
These jeans are kept in a fireproof safe, and only two people in the entire world know the combination. These jeans were not made for a stroll to the grocery store or a casual date night. These jeans were made in 1879 for men who were out harvesting timber or mining silver, which, as you can imagine, were not the easiest of jobs.
One of the two people who has access to the safe is Tracey Panek, the Levi Strauss & Co. historian. Who knew jeans needed a historian? Now you know. "I like to think of them as the very first early sustainable garment ... you could wear them out, you could pass them on, you could patch them up," she said, explaining how they were developed during the history of the American West.
"They were built to last," said Panek, and because of that, they can tell us the story of the person who was wearing them. Nevada tailor Jacob Davis wrote to Strauss in 1872 of the design of the pants. "The secratt [sic] of them Pents is the Rivits that I put in those Pockots," he said. "I cannot make them up fast enough ... My nabors are getting yealouse of these success and unless I secure it by patent papers ... everybody will make them up." The spelling may have been different then, but the quality was, and still is, on point.
This pair, the 138-year-old pants, were called the "XX" after the type of material that was produced at the Amoskeag Denim Mill in New Hampshire. They only had one pocket in the back, unlike the two pockets we have today. But they had three pockets in the front, one used for a pocket watch.
By 1890, the XX would become the basis for the 501 jean that we still wear today. And today, on average, people wear jeans 3.5 times a week and own at least 8.6 pairs. Most of us might not be mining any more, but we still really, really love our jeans.
The 138-year-old pair were concluded to have been worn by at least three people, according to Levi jean archivists. They were so rugged that they could go through multiple owners, and still come out looking like they could go for another whole century. Our phones sometimes doesn't even make it through an entire month without breaking.
Another pair of jeans in the Levi collection is nicknamed Calico after the California silver mine where a woman discovered them in the 1940s. We're not going to ask why someone had to abandon their pants, but the inside pocket featured the two-horse trademark, which still appears on the pants today. This symbol means that they're so tough that they "couldn't be pulled apart with two horses."
"For over 17 years our celebrated XX blue denim, copper riveted overalls have been before the public," says the pocket on Calico. "This is a pair of them." You don't need to tell us twice, Levi's. We'd recognize those jeans anywhere.
It wasn't until 1934 that the first pair of Levi's was introduced for women, because women, oddly enough, liked jeans too. The jeans appeared in a Vogue issue in 1935, and that was history. Jeans have obviously been popular for women since, and other brands like Lee and OshKosh soon followed suit and began making the garments for women as well.
During the Great Depression, popularity of jeans was booming, and especially jeans for women. There was an increase of emphasis on the working class, after all, and that's what Levi's were for. However, textiles were scarce during the time, so Levi's started to make their famous pants a little differently.
The extra rivet that was previously seen on the pants was removed during the Great Depression. And to save thread, the arcuate on the back pocket was painted on instead of sewn. "This is the kind of pant that people are trying to recreate today," Panek said of these old pairs of pants. "But it's all just original wear." No matter how cool your ripped pants are, nothing comes close to the real thing.
To make your jeans look like they're 138-years-old, a lot of work goes into the process now. We work hard to make it look like we worked hard in our jeans. We're talking specific dyeing, selective fading, whiskering, stonewashing and sandblasting to get the look, all done by experienced designers.
Some jeans are programmed into Adobe Photoshop and burned with a giant laser. Literally, your jeans are a work of art. So thanks to Levi Strauss, for blessing us with these old old jeans, and then their new old jeans as well.