I can’t take credit for inventing denim blue jeans, although I did make one brand a household name – or rather, a household number. Five. Oh. One. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s begin with a few of the fun facts I had to learn before I jumped in the denim game.
First, blue jeans aren’t naturally blue. Denim is manufactured in vast mills by the tens of millions of square yards. The original cotton yarn is a dun-colored shade of pale until indigo-blue dye is added. Or black dye, if black jeans happen to be in fashion. Or any other color – remember those lavender numbers they sold in the ‘80s?
Second, these days, real cowboys do not wear Levi’s and they certainly do not wear lavender. They wear Wranglers, pre-shrunk, with a high waist so you don’t sit on your wallet, as well as make a wide space between the front belt loops to make way for that manhole cover sized belt buckle. Wranglers are woven of a soft-type denim so they fit tight, and have a hidden inseam stitch that won’t chafe the inside of a buckaroos legs straddling a saddle all day.
Third, the first pair of jeans ever to appear on the market, Levi’s patented XX model, were invented in 1873 and retailed for less than a dollar. Today you can easily pay $500 for a pair of vintage reproduction Levi’s with simulated grime and wrinkles already baked in at the factory.
It’s probably a safe bet that if you were pulling on a pair of XXs in the 1800s you were a working stiff and, back then, you distressed your own denim. Laborers went for the tough material that would last while workin’ on the railroad all the livelong day. And it was certain you’d never live long enough to imagine the word “designer” associated with the word “jeans.”
Ironically, it was not until the movies came along that denim became an accepted emblem of rugged individualism, mainly in the Old West. The first jeans to appear on film were worm by silent movie cowboys, who were often real-life rancheros wearing their own work pants. By 1939, Hollywood had invaded Monument Valley and Levi’s could be seen on Jon Wayne in John Ford’s Stagecoach. Burt Lancaster wore jeans in Vengeance Valley, as did Kirk Douglas in Lonely Are the Brave. Paul Newman wore a pair in Hud. So did Ronald Reagan on his 1960s hit TV show, Death Valley Days. Eventually jeans showed up in Hollywood urban dramas like On the Waterfront and in high-school teen rebel films such as Rebel Without a Cause.
There was one actor and one movie, however, that always stood out in my mind as exemplifying cowboy cool: James Dean in director George Steven’s classic, Giant. For me, the most indelible image of great-fitting jeans is Dean slouching under his cowboy hat in the backseat of that old black car with his legs stretched, boot heels wandering on the back of the car’s front seat. Between Jimmy Dean and his boots sits a Victorian house in the background upon a treeless horizon. He is Jett Rink. Freedom. Jeans. And the American Way.
That’s the image I’d been carrying around when, in 1981 – 108 years after the XX hit the stores – Levi Strauss & Co. pointed a finger at the precocious but obedient creative director at Foote Cone & Belding advertising agency (me) and told him to market its new, traditional, shrink-to-fit button-fly blue jeans. One 30-second commercial. And oh, they added, we want to market these jeans to women, not men.
The campaign made sense. Men had long held the advantage when it came to jeans. All you had to do was look around. Jackson Pollock and classic-era Brando never wore anything but Levi’s button-fly jeans. Neal Cassady wore Levi’s in Kerouac’s On the Road. Andy Warhol was the first person I ever saw wearing a sport coat with jeans. Decades after Death Valley Days, Ronald Reagan was now president and still in Levi’s. Bing Crosby had a Levi’s tuxedo made for him. Have you ever seen a Hells Angel in anything else?
On the other hand, women mainly didn’t wear Levi’s button-fly jeans. For years the only choice a woman had was to buy a pair in the approximate men’s size, wash them three times (according to legend), then sit for hours in a hot tub hoping to shape the fit. Even then the results didn’t look altogether natural. Check out Marilyn Monroe in, approximately enough, The Misfits.
Now, at last, Levi’s had come up with sizes especially cut for women. But how were we going to get the message across? Answer: Make Jett Rink a babe. A visual metaphor.
Scene: A female with long hair and chilling confidence sits in the backseat of this old car. Her long, thin legs are stretched out past a Victorian house that stands in the background on a treeless horizon. Blue-denim-covered legs stretched to the front seat, emphasizing the fit of her jeans.
“But wait!” says the account supervisor – the guy looking out for the client’s interests. “We’ve got to show how the jeans fit. How do we know this on a…girl?”
“Ohhh. K. I can fix that,” I say. “She simply pulls her legs back, see? Kicks open the back door of the car, puts her feet on the ground, stands up with her backside to the camera. We see the trademark Levi’s back-pocket stitching, the Two-Horse Brand leather patch on the waistband and the famous red tab label that spells LEVI’S. She takes her cowboy hat off and shakes out her long hair.”
“So that’s it?” the Suit says. “She just stands there with her back toward the camera?”
“No, there’s more.” And like Max Bialystock explaining a phony musical’s story line, I continue: “A rusty screen door squeaks open. A cowboy comes out of the house toward her. The dusty wind blows a tumbleweed between her and the cowboy.”
“And putting a defiant hand on her hip and leaning forward, she shouts, ‘Travis, you’re a year too late.’” A line created by the late Mike Koelber.
Beat. “A dog barks in the distance.” Fade to black.
The Suit asks, “Then a voice-over says ‘Levi’s Shrink-to-Fit Button-Fly Jeans now cut for women,’ right?”
“No. That’s too long,” I say. “They’ll remember Travis.”
Still, we needed to plant one more hook in the buyer’s psyche, something simple she could ask for when she went in the store. Until now, all Levi’s of any type were called just…Levi’s. We needed to separate this five-pocket architecture from the pack. Then I thought about those original XX jeans. Eventually Levi Strauss gave them the stock number 501. That was it – 501. Just a number. Around the company and the agency we simply referred to them as basics to distinguish them from by then all the other Levis products.
“Let’s brand them 501,” I said. “Make 501 a brand name.”
It turned out to be the biggest number in the jeans business; women’s, men’s, kids. Yves St. Laurent once said, “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.”
Which reminds me. That line about Travis. People ask me all the time what deep significance it held. Even The Wall Street Journal ran a story speculating on its hidden meaning. I will now, however, reveal the answer: It didn’t mean a thing. Nothing at all. It just sounded cool.
There’s one more fact I learned before I started hawking 501s. Those weren’t Levi’s James Dean was wearing in that famous shot from Giant. They were Lee Riders.
Originally published in Forbes FYI, March 2005. Thanks to Patrick Cooke.
Terrific! Bob G.
You’re a God!!!!!!!!!!!!! Fqonbike
Cool story – enjoyed it! Franz W.
Yup, you’re a genius! Barb W.B.
Soooo….. miners wore Levi’s? Farmers wore…. ? Cowboys wore Wranglers….. hmm……I always wondered why I got chafed a bit riding my motorcycle…… not really. The Wrangler history looks like the later cowboys wore Wranglers……http://www.wrangler.com/wps/wcm/connect/wrangler-en_us/about_us/history/ What did cowboys of the 19th century wear? I did write a poem once:
Blue Heap of Woven Sheep
Blue heap of woven sheep.
Stitched and riveted.
Lined, looped, and pocketed.
Two asses couldn’t pull you apart.
And there you sit,
Blue heap of woven sheep.
After writing it, I realized that the pants/jeans were, of course, made of cotton, not sheep. They were Levi’s…. and when we were kids, the pant legs were rolled….. that had become cool at that time. I remember getting some 1949-52 high school yearbooks and all (many of) the boys had flight jackets and jeans with rolled pant legs. J. Tabler
Cowboys couldn’t wear levis because of the big inseam. That’s what chafed you. They did go to wranglers. MS.
Just bought 3 new pair of black myself…Sue M.
Good for you. In Macau. Not a lot of horses or motorcycles. MS.
Cowboys wore jeans. Custer wore Arrow shirts. D & S Steiner