When you think of denim jeans, there’s one brand that instantly comes to mind. Levi’s. And, when you think of Levi’s, you’re probably talking about their iconic 501s. While Levi’s has a rich history, the brand probably has James Dean to thank–for personifying this particular pair.
Brief History of Denim Jeans
Before we get much further, let’s take a quick look back at the history of denim jeans.
All the way back in the 17th Century, denim was crafted in Nimes, France and originally called serge de Nimes. The fabric found its way to Italy and became popular with sailors in the Republic of Genoa. It’s believed that the trousers worn by the sailors at this time were called Genes, which is where we got the term ‘jeans’ from.
Fast forward to the mid-1800s and a German immigrant named Levi Strauss. Like so many other people at the time, Strauss headed out to California during the Gold Rush of 1849. Instead of searching for gold, Strauss decided to make his fortune by selling supplies to the miners in San Francisco. He eventually teamed up with a tailor named Jacob Davis. Davis invented metal rivets that were attached to the pockets of jeans, which kept them from ripping and splitting. When the two men received the patent for their trousers in 1873, they were assigned the lot number 501.
The jeans became a favorite for people who did physical labor, because they were made from a tougher material. Even soldiers in the U.S. military wore Levi’s on the battlefield. Then, Hollywood came along.
James Dean in Jeans
In 1955, a young actor named James Dean captured America’s youth after starring in two films, East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause.
Up until the release of Rebel Without a Cause, no other film had accurately depicted the confusion and alienation that teenagers felt. Because it connected so well with teenage disillusionment, James quickly became a cultural icon. The image of Dean in a white shirt, leather jacket, and a pair of 501s has since become one of the most legendary images in pop culture.
Dean further helped the image of Levi’s with his next film, Giant. The movie saw the young actor as a surly ranch hand, which earned him an Academy Award nomination. However, the poster for the film, which features Dean chilling in the backseat of a wagon, is another timeless image. Despite the fact that Dean was wearing Lee Riders in the image, Levi’s embraced the poster as their own. Decades later, the iconic image was recreated for 501 ads.
Of course, Dean’s early death in a tragic car crash only advanced his legendary status in American pop culture. Even today, he remains one of America’s most revived and favorite actors. He was the dude that every man wanted to be, and every girl wanted to be with. He did, and still does, personify “cool”. And, he did that while wearing another legendary and timeless American favorite, Levi’s 501.
Images via ImageCollect