The beauty of denim – with Levi’s through the ages
Levi’s had exposed rivets on their back pockets until 1937, when complaints about scratched saddles and seats forced them to be covered. A few years later the rivet on the crotch was removed, with the better (but possibly apocryphal) story that cowboys burnt their sensitive parts when they sat too close to the fire.
I met Arthur at Le Vif in Paris recently to talk through these minutiae of Levi’s history. Given I buy and wear so many of them, it was nice to fill in some of the minutiae.
However, what it actually left me with was a deeper love of denim, rather than an in-depth history. A real appreciation of natural indigo and cotton twill, the way it twists and fades, and the subtle variegated landscape.
There were a lot of jeans on that table over the course of our two-hour chat, and by the end of it I felt I was swimming in the stuff.
A reader recently commented that blue jeans seemed too common to him to be interesting. They’re certainly ubiquitous, but like the delicately turned waist of a bespoke shoe, or the patina on a leather briefcase, some subtleties just need to be pointed out to be appreciated.
I don't think there’s anything wrong with this - it doesn’t mean better jeans don’t still look better, just like a well-cut suit, to the man in the street. It just means appreciation deepens the more you know, and the more you look.
Painting - though of course a much richer and broader concern - is similar. Often all it takes is a friend to point out an element of composition or technique, and you see it in a new light. You begin to recognise and enjoy different qualities.
With denim, this could be the way shades of blue range across a fade. It’s never a stark change - there’s a wave that begins with deepest indigo, goes through many hues of blue, and peaks in a pale line where the yarn almost loses colour completely.
Areas of wear have wave after wave of this, each one different, each also textured by contour lines that show how the material has been twisted and turned with use.
When jeans are artificially aged, you lose some of this subtlety. They’re often heavily washed, which removes the deepest indigo and therefore one end of the scale. And no one has the ability (by machine) or time (by hand) to shade each twisting gradation differently.
This is not what I'd intended to focus on with Arthur. I’d suggested walking through Levi’s from different eras, making use of his personal collection, and so we were talking about belt loops that were on the back seam or not (above, before the mid-50s), and whether back pockets were chain stitched.
Charmingly, models often break the rules, just to keep everyone on their toes. The pair below, for example, have one back pocket chain stitched, the other not. Sometimes people get lazy, or just lose track halfway through production.
Dissecting all these details, however, just made me look more closely at the ageing - the way different rivets patina, or the way coin pockets often have a flat fade, because hands pass across them so many times.
I particularly appreciate the explosion of fraying you get at the edges of front pockets, as if the denim has finally given up the ghost, losing its integrity in an eruption of yarn.
It reminded me, actually, of how much I love the surprisingly numerous and bright yarns of Harris Tweed, and wonder what that would be like if they faded with use.
We do have some nice aspects of ageing with smarter menswear, such as the endearing fraying of old shirts, and perhaps the wearing down of corduroy, but denim has greater depth and variety. Only leather goods really come close.
Of course, on PS over the years we’ve talked about the complexity of many textiles, most recently Donegal tweed but also menswear-adjacent ones like upholstery or Navajo blankets. They’re all kin.
If readers are interested, I can do a more in-depth article on Levi’s through the decades, but as Arthur said, there are quite a lot of similar guides online. And if you’re looking to buy vintage the best way is often through a vintage shop or dealer.
Today I wanted to talk about the beauty I find in denim - because while it’s certainly not new either, it’s newer to me, and perhaps to some readers.
I’m aware that the photos, by the way, are not the best, having been taken by myself and Lucas while we were in Paris. But hopefully they serve their purpose, and I can do something with better, more professional, perhaps macro-accentuated ones at a later date.
Below, customers at Le Vif admiring Lucas's PS Donegal Coat, which was hanging up at the back of the shop. I love the fact they thought it was vintage.
Does there ever come a time when the fading of jeans gets rather too much and looks ugly? And when is the right time to retire a pair of jeans after years of wearing them? Is there a certain sign?
Good question. I don’t think there is, personally, with normal wear. If you get stains, paint, oil etc, then that’s different and is at the least a different look that most people won’t want. But with just fading, fraying, normal washing, the style changes, they become less smart, but they’re still lovely.
Usually jeans need to be retired only when they become too fragile – they can be patched and rewoven a lot, but at a certain point the denim becomes so thin that it rips consistently. There’s a piece here on repairing denim if you haven’t seen that
I have actually done a calculation on when to retire jeans.
Assuming two wears a week, and a wash every three months, they should be retired after seven years and three months, all things being equal.
Hope this helps.
Why should they be retired at that point Tim – is that allowing for repairs?
I am not a huge fan of super faded frayed jeans with tailoring, or smart/casual outfits. So, I tend to have two pairs: one relatively new pair which I wear professionally or just out and about in town. Then, when the main pair start to get too frayed and faded, I buy a new pair and wear the old pair to go to the playground with the kids, for DIY type stuff etc. It’s almost a ceremony when the jeans change round, I love a sartorial ritual. I’d say it’s a 3 year cycle but it us all about personal taste to say when a pair is too far. It also means I get to enjoy all the wonderful stages of denim.
Like the old changing of suits, with a new one becoming Sunday best, the one replaced becoming the daily suit, and the next one down becoming workwear
Yes,and this is not about suits,but thise clothes that passed down the line (mainly work wear) and become grandkid Sundays ,suddenly acquire a well-worn patina, move back up the favourites line and you appreciate the slightly frayed cuffs and repaired denim.
That last line is amusing-I find that each time someone compliments my PS Donegal coat, it’s followed up by “Is that vintage?”
lovely read on a Monday morning, I think you and Lucas managed to catch the details well despite the lack of a photographer on assignment.
I have to agree your point about jeans that have been artificially aged, the biggest part that ruins them for me is that loss of the dark end of the spectrum. Almost like loosing the darker hues of a leather patina.
I’ll never understand the comment about indigo denim being something to avoid solely on the basis of ubiquity. The same could be said of grey and navy suits, black oxfords and so on – it just makes the subtleties of cut, material and make more important.
On Levi’s, with your experience, do you have a particular preferred era? And is there any denim being made now that you think will be as good in 60+ years time in the same way?
I personally like 501s from the 60s and 70s, because the cut works well for me, the quality of the denim is really high, and they’re old enough that they have character you won’t get from a fairly new pair. Often later 70s 501s are a good option as they’re as nice but don’t have the price tag of a ‘big E’ pair.
However, a lot of denim made today is just as good and will age just as well. All the top-end makers, from Bryceland’s to Full Count, make great jeans that will look like that in years to come. The reasons to buy vintage are not really quality – unless you’re comparing old Levi’s to current ones – but their uniqueness, character, and often the mid-blue tones that you can’t get with denim until it has been worn and washed for many years, even decades (depending how often they are worn).
I’d be just as happy to buy Real McCoy’s jeans that are this worn in as I would Levi’s from 60 years ago. I know some wouldn’t – they like the rarity and the place you feel something has in history – but it wouldn’t matter to me.
I absolutely love Levi’s and the history the brand represents as a Californian Jew myself. The only thing that bothers me is they brought manufacturing to China twice after bringing it back to the US. Now I am on the search for vintage from a local American vendor as I purchased a farm in Kentucky and am in desperate need of work trousers!
I have several pairs of vintage Levi’s jeans and will be willing to sell them
What era are we talking Roger?
Levi’s appears to be your favourite brand of denim jeans. It would be useful to know how you would rate them against other brands that you have covered on PS, e.g. Blackhorse Lane Atelier.
I wouldn’t say that Gary – they are my favourite vintage brand, but then there were far fewer makers so there’s not much choice.
Among modern brands Levi’s wouldn’t enter into the picture unless you included the MTM, Lot No.1. And then Blackhorse, Bryceland’s, Full Count, Rubato and others would all be competing.
Would a fuller article comparing modern jeans be useful?
It would be incredibly useful, especially for those to whom vintage has no appeal.
OK thanks Alex, I’ll start to plan something
I’d find it useful. I have to admit a lot of what you feature is out of my price range, but it comes in useful as a guide to what to look for on eBay.
OK, gotcha. Thanks Rob
It’s not yet 7 years and 3 months, but I’m thinking about buying a new pair nevertheless 🙂
Can I ask why? I would have thought they’d be at their best about now!
Yes, it would and, preferably, should cover non-indigo denim too. Fit and rises are very important to me. Others issues are distribution and availability as several retailers (like Clutch Cafe) appear to run out of stock quickly. As not everyone can get into central London easily, it would be useful to cover brands that are readily available across the country.
Thanks Gary. I think the latter point would be rather restrictive – it would limit premium denim at least to only a small number of brands.
A garment as pragmatic as jeans could only have been born from a turn of the century America. Levi’s certainly spearheaded the marketing of and shift from the workwear to the fashion, eventually fast fashion, world that made jeans into something a grandma wears to the grocery store. However, the full story of why jeans caught on is best spotlighted by Marshall McLuhan’s ideas of the future being the present. The mid century Cowboy craze was a lamentation by the burgeoning American Suburbia over the loss of the Wild West and family farming culture as they were being shuffled into their half acre pens.
I’d love it if you could do a little bit of an overview on vintage Levi’s (and maybe some new buy alternatives) from a menswear perspective. Perhaps with suggestions on model/year options for different body types?
I’ve been hunting through online Levi’s guides/videos for the last few weeks, but they tend to be written by denim-heads who have quite different goals and fit preferences to people who are interested in menswear of the sort covered by PS. For people (like me) who live outside Europe/Japan/the americas, it’s really hard to figure out without burning hundreds/thousands on buying duds online (it’s usually $100 shipping each way).
Thanks Aaron, yes vintage shopping online for something like jeans is really hard. Unfortunately going through the fits from all the different points in time verges on impossible, because something like rise varied fairly regularly, and from looking at a pair of jeans you can’t necessarily date them as accurately as you’d need to in any case.
What you can do is know whether you like a 501, a 550 fit etc through the leg and hips (501 is straighter, 550 roomier in the hips and thighs) and then look at the measurements for the rise, waist, leg length. Would something just spelling out that basic fit information be the kind of thing you were after?
Yes, I think so. It’s a challenge to figure out what will work for paired with tailoring (even when sizes are available I’ve found fit with jeans changes so much after a bit of wear that I’ve no idea what’s going to work out).
I’m a fairly similar build to you, so had started looking at new 501s, but even in that space there’s about 5 different ‘years’ in the selvedge space (all of which would have to be ordered online with no real option for return from New Zealand). Beyond Levi’s there’s a fairly endless number of denim specialist brands that are equally hard to parse.
On the whole denim has proved more of a challenge than bespoke suiting. Perhaps because I only really want one pair of jeans – while suiting is an ongoing experiment/exploration. Having a few go-to suggestions for silhouette types would be amazing.
Interesting, OK thanks Aaron, and this is mostly for new jeans then, not vintage?
I was thinking the main historical Levi’s cuts form a good reference as the Levi’s vintage line does reproductions of them (with a lot available this year due to the 150th anniversary of the 501), and they also form the template that many of the raw denim focused brands tend to reference. Having a basic understanding of their applicability to menswear applications (rather than denim-head looks) would also help with vintage shopping though.
The guides/YouTube channels I’ve found are fascinated with things like which rivets a particular year range has, but give no information on how well it might work with a longer vs shorter sports coat. They also tend to show the jeans with untucked t-shirts, so you can’t even tell the waistline.
Gotcha, thanks Aaron
LEVIS…. IN MALAYSIA….
AS SPECIAL 501 ARE GETTING THINNER. NOT GOING TO BUY THEM AT ALL!!
I tried a pair there – it was noticeable how low the quality was compared to the pair I tried on here recently. Perhaps try their online store?
I love your writing in various articles on denim over the years. With everyone getting more causal it’s more relevant than ever.
Thank you Tim
As a kid in the 60’s Mom would take us each Fall to the Levi’s shop at the mall for one pair. Probably $18-20 US although my memory fades. Stacked by waist size/length in wall cubicles reaching to the ceiling the color was uniform. Deep indigo. The top cubicles were accessed with a rolling ladder. Like trying on cardboard. We hated the feel, the smell and most of all the teasing from the neighborhood kids until they broke in. Always bought the wrong size on the recommendation of some teenager promising the magic shrinkage formula. They ended up belted and rolled up for way too long. These were play clothes never to see the inside of school. Tough as a two dollar steak we all grew up before the jeans gave out. Great stuff Simon.
Thanks Robert, and what a vivid picture you draw. Lovely
In the past I tried chasing unicorns and continously modify different pairs to achieve the perfect fit. I finally just bought a vintage pair of 501z 1954 and I am loving every bit of them; the downside is that I have a bunch of redundant pairs that I cannot sell.
Do you think they’re really not sellable? Would people not be happy to buy them if it was made clear they had been altered and what the new measurements were? I feel like they might not pay quite the same amount, but they’d still be happy to buy them. I would at least
Thanks Simon – I will try with one pair at least.
On a separate note, have you ever seen Helmut Lang jeans? I have a pair and I see that online they are selling for about £100.
No, but my assumption would be they’d be pretty fashion rather than craft driven?
Actually they are very similar to 501s.
I found this description on a website: First introduced in the Spring Summer 1997 collection, the “Helmut Lang Jeans” label was synonymous with the 90s and early 2000s style. His initial denim offerings featured cuts inspired by vintage Levi’s jeans, like the 1947 501 XX model that made up his standard cut pair of jeans.
Yes I meant make rather than style
I really miss my old Levi´s from the 80s and of course a lot of old APC etc. Today it´s a form of lottery when I buy on Internet. I have a lot of good quality jeans, ex. Ami, APC, COF, Orslow and other brand but I still miss the old denim.
Simon, why aren’t those articles online when I have my morning coffee? Most often they come online around lunchtime when I’m either very busy or having a nap.
Articles are pretty much always published at 9am – not sure when you’re having your lunch!
Lately there were more than couple times when article appeared around lunch. And by the way, articles very rarely shows up at 9. Mostly 10-30 minutes past 9.
Thanks Martins, the former was due to a couple of caching issues, but those are fixed now
I have a cup of coffee around 07:00 MET every day while reading something. My next cup of coffee is around 10:00 MET with my wife somewhere outside at a café. But then don’t read your articles.
If would be best if you could publish your articles around 06:00 MET.
Thanks H, but if we were to change the publishing time, it would be to move it to the afternoon when US readers come online – they are as big a part of the readership as the UK
Though if the current publishing time stays, around 9 AM UK time, the artcile would already be there when the US readers come on line…does it then even matter if the time is changed or not?
Only that UK and European readers like it at that time, and have come to expect it. Given the day is also the time I’m publishing comments and replying to them, I think it also helps the flow of the conversation if it’s largely on UK time
I also share your passion for vintage Levis over the modern day ones which have no character or soul!
I recently bought a pair of 80s Levis from Broadway and Sons. They are a really good fit however slightly tight around the thigh – I’ve taken them into BHL in Coal Drops yard for repairs but they were adamant they couldn’t let out the side seam around the thigh even the smallest amount and i recall you had this done on a pair of your 501s… can you remind me where it was done please?
Do you know the difference between the 60s and 70s 501 fit compared to the 80s?
If BHL say it can’t be done, I’d imagine it can’t be. Mine was done by Levi’s, but only as a favour because I was a Lot.1 customer. And the BHL team will know, maybe the selvedge is just more frayed or something.
I’ve found the fit of the 501s fairly similar through those periods with mine, except for the rise, but I haven’t looked into it comprehensively. I’m planning a follow-up article on that.
I’ve only just had the opportunity to read your article. A lovely piece. I always enjoy technical articles (ok I’m a nerd!), however this was different, more a love letter to denim. I always find my best Levi’s are those that are nearly worn out, by which time I’m very selective in about wearing them – did I mention I was a nerd?
I personally would be interested in more articles on the history of Levi’s if there is sufficient demand. Thanks again
Thanks Michael, good to know, and pleased it came across with that much love!
I’m Stephen btw!
Listened earlier to a Radio 4 prog – Hands of Time by Rebecca Struthers https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m001lr9n – where she mentions that Hans Wilsdorf started the trend of men using a wristwatch prior to the 1st World War – previously men would use pocket watches and only women used wristwatches. Wilsdorf changed the name of his German-sounding company in 1915 – to Rolex. She said that the small front pocket in Levis would have been specifically designed for a pocket watch.
Is it possible that the first sentence of paragraph six slipped through the editing process?
“I don’t think there’s nothing wrong with this … “
Yes! Thanks Ian, I’ll correct that now
I have a pair of 30 year old RRL jeans that are exquisite. Here is a Levis story you will love. A Charleston dog beachwalking pal, who is a Scot, did well financially in the 80’s and 90’s buying vintage American jeans, and then reselling them in Europe and Japan. One day, he finds a guy who is literally in the “rag business”; he buys garments, puts them through a huge knife chopper, and sells them as bulk rags. Nigel, the inquisitive Scot, asks, “would you perchance have any Levi boutton-fly jeans?” The guy replies, “yeah, we’ve got tons in the warehouse in bales. We can’t put them through the chopper, because the rivets and metal buttons will damage the blades.” Nigel was buying denim by the kilo, and reselling them in Japan for $150 per pair.
Amazing. Thanks Ned
Hi Simon – what is your experience with Japanese denim brands? I still have one pair of Levi’s in the closet but have only been wearing a mix of Ironheart and Kapital for the past decade or so. While they don’t offer the customization options of some other brands mentioned here, the range of fits, especially with Ironheart, provides plenty of options. Obviously it depends on body type but I personally find the 888 Ironheart fit to work well with tailoring.
I’ve used a few over the years Rav, eg Full Count here, and Rubato and Bryceland’s (both made in Japan). I also really like Real McCoy’s.
I haven’t tried the 888 Ironheart, but from looking online it looks pretty nice, perhaps a touch slim for what I’d usually go for
“I particularly appreciate the explosion of fraying you get at the edges of front pockets, as if the denim has finally given up the ghost, losing its integrity in an eruption of yarn.”
I particularly enjoyed this line. Great writing.
Thanks JVE, I liked that one too!
Lovely article. I especially like the “invisible” quality in jeans. It’s like a secret joy to wear good jeans that no one else see from the outside (apart from a few denim heads who recognize the selvedge most people just see a regular jeans). And at the same time it is a piece of clothing that does not stand between you and your opposite, as openly expensive clothing can be intimidating.
Since I now almost only wear jeans from fall to spring, I would also be happy about the Levis article.
Thanks Jeldrik, nicely put.
I bought my first levi jeans 👖 and jacket for £2::50 and £2:50 for jeans many years ago they had to have red stitching in the legs for original levies in a shop in Inverness