views updated


Levi's is the registered trademark of a kind of blue denim jeans made by Levi Strauss & Company of San Francisco. Other garments and accessories made by Levi Strauss, such as tailored slacks, jackets, hats, shirts, skirts, and belts, are sometimes also referred to as "Levi's," but the trademark is properly applied only to the line of jeans with the designated style number "501" and distinguished by the following unique features: a fly of metal buttons rather than a zipper, copper rivets on the pocket seams, a leather label sewn on the waistband, a stitched pattern of a double "v" on the back pockets, a red tag with the word "Levi's" sewn into the seam of the right back pocket, and the use of heavyweight cotton denim that will "shrink-to-fit" an inch or so at the waist and legs with the first laundering. After nearly 100 years of steady, though unremarkable, sales—almost entirely wholesale, to cowboys and agricultural workers in the West—the popularity of Levi's flourished after World War II when they became the fashionable attire of middle-class teenagers, spurred by a new marketing thrust in which the company abandoned wholesaling in favor of manufacturing garments under its own name.

Levi Strauss & Company takes its name from Levi Strauss (1829-1902), a Bavarian who emigrated to San Francisco in 1850, at the height of the California Gold Rush. He brought a store of dry goods with him in hopes of setting up a business supplying miners and prospectors in the gold fields. Discovering that what these consumers needed above all was a durable pair of trousers, Strauss hired a tailor to design a serviceable pair of pants. The original garment was made of tent canvas, which was changed after a few years to the now world-famous blue denim. The trousers sold so well that Strauss concentrated on their manufacture to the exclusion of all other merchandise. In 1853, he formed a partnership with his brothers Jonas and Louis, and they ran the company until Levi Strauss's death in 1902, at which time the executive control of the firm passed to four nephews. In 1918, the Haas family—part of the Strauss family by marriage—took over. After World War II, at the same time they decided to promote Levi's to retail consumers, the Haases also made a public offering of Levi Strauss stock. During the company's explosive growth in the 1950s and 1960s, the stock's performance matched pace. Other types of pants—work, casual, and dress—were added to the inventory, as were jackets, shirts, and various items of women's clothing. By 1985, when the Haases and other members of the Strauss family staged a leveraged buyout and returned the company to private hands, Levi Strauss & Company had become the largest manufacturer of pants in the world. In February of 1999, the company announced that it was closing down its manufacturing operations in the United States and moving them overseas.

The success of Levi's signals, among other things, the first flexing of the huge economic muscle of the postwar Baby Boom. How Levi's became the brand of blue jeans to wear—the sine qua non of membership in the inner circle in every American high school and junior high—provides a case study in demographics and aggressive marketing. The Levi's story also reflects the shifting, after 1945, of America's cultural center of gravity to the West coast. The unchallenged supremacy of Levi's—in which the brand name has become virtually the generic name for the product—also reflects the penchant of bourgeois youth to adopt the attire and the mannerisms of lower social classes.

—Gerald Carpenter

Further Reading:

Arnold, Oren. Levi's Stories of Western Brands and What They Mean. San Francisco, Levi Strauss & Co., 1947.

Cray, Ed. Levi's. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1978.

Downey, Lynn. 501: This is a Pair of Levi's Jeans—The Official History of the Levi's Brand. San Francisco, Levi Strauss & Co., 1995.

Reed, Howard E. "Levi's" in Africa. Berkeley, University of California, 1967.