In 2023, the Levi's 501 celebrates its 150th anniversary. The iconic five-pocket jean has remained relevant since the late 19th century, transitioning from a functional mining over-garment to an accessible wardrobe staple. And though the style has evolved with the passing decades, the core five-pocket, straight-leg blueprint has remained constant.
"It is the most authentic, effortless expressive item of clothing in my mind," says Levi's senior VP and chief product officer, Karyn Hillman. The 501 is both ordinary in its ubiquitousness and extraordinary in the way it allows people to express themselves. It's a garment that acts as a blank canvas, providing a foundation for anything from utilitarian workwear to fashion-forward outfits. The style's simple form and function make it appealing to people worldwide. "It really is that accessible, humble jean," she says.
In 1873, Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis were granted a patent on the process of riveting pants and created a denim-and-duck canvas pant for miners prospecting gold near San Francisco. Originally called XX Waist Overalls, the style became known as the 501 in 1890 and was the highest quality jean offered by Levi's at the time. It featured a single back pocket, suspender buttons and a cinch in the back to tighten the waist. By 1901 a second back pocket was added and, in 1922, belt loops are added to the style along with the suspender buttons and cinch.
In the early 20th century, the 501 was still a workwear garment commonly worn on farms and ranches. "It's still very high waisted, very wide leg fit up until you get to the 1940s," says design director of Levi's Collections Paul O'Neill. By 1937, the suspender buttons were removed from 501 and the pocket rivets were hidden to protect saddles and furniture from scratches.
During the Second World War, there were rations on metal, so 501s from this period were manufactured with logo-less buttons. But after the war, jeans transitioned from workwear to everyday garments. According to O'Neill, the 1947 501 signals the "birth of the modern five-pocket jean." Along with simplifying the number of rivets, the jeans fit closer to the skin.
"You see a lot of G.I.s coming back from the war and they're wearing 501s and they're wearing like underwear as outerwear, like t-shirts," says O'Neill. "So they're wearing white t-shirts, 501s. This is, of course, not conventional — shocking. Then begins this whole thing with Hollywood and Marlon Brando."
In 1953, Brando wore 501s in The Wild One connecting the style to the growing counterculture and youth in America. "1954 is really what most people visualize as the modern five-pocket jean," says Hillman. That year, Levi's also released the short-lived 501z style with a zip fly to appeal to fashionable East Coast city dwellers. "The fifties was just cleaner and more smart, and then it hit Hollywood and then it hit counter-culture and then it hit for the rebels and then it got relaxed in the sixties and then it got to the Dillons and everything got a little dirtier," she says. "Everything just went through the cultures — that's what we follow to see how someone was actually wearing it."
In the decades following World War II, different social groups transformed a piece of functional workwear into a blank canvas that could be modified and styled to express culture. Where modifications used to be functional — removing an unnecessary cinch or patching a worn knee — people began making the 501 unique to their newfound ways of life, styling it in unique ways, adding aesthetic patches and modifying the silhouette.
While subtle shifts occurred to the 501 in the latter decades of the 20th century, most were insignificant from a shopper's point of view. But, the effects of globalization and consumerism post-2000 created a new paradigm for Levi's. As a participant in the cyclical fashion market, the brand now drives the style and culture of the 501. To get products to market on time, the brand is thinking well over a year in advance and offering a wide range of styles to appeal to different aesthetics. In that sense, Levi's is in active conversation with its customers, creating a conversation around culture instead of witnessing cultures interact with their blank-canvas product.
Levi's is also reacting to what its customers want — and instead of just observing while people sew hippie patches onto their jeans, they're creating new products. Recently, that was denim with stretch. "We did Shrink-to-fit Stretch for the first time in the history of the company in 2016," Hillman says. "Our tried-and-true 501 was cotton. So we ended up figuring out how to put stretch into our Shrink-to-fit proprietary fabric."
When any new elements are introduced into the 501, they must pass numerous tests for durability and longevity including tear strength, tensile strength, abrasion resistance, color fastness to light, crocking wet and crocking dry.
To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the 501, Levi's is offering a wide range 501s — both historically reproductions and modern iterations — along with three innovative versions of the icon: one made from cottonized hemp, one made from recycled materials that can then be recycled to produce new jeans and one plant-based style notably dyed using natural indigo. "We've been able to get these three all the way over the hurdle of the extremely rigorous product integrity metrics for a shrink to fit Levi's 501," says Levi's vice president and head of innovation Paul Dillinger.
The cottonized-hemp 501s, offered in blue and black, are made with hemp that's processed in a way to give it elongation in the fiber similar to cotton, so it can be used in traditional looms without ruining them. "The ideal idea for any innovative specialty materials is you want them developed to a state of common use where they don't require a highly specialized team that's got a weird passion for this sort of stuff," Dillinger says. "You want it to get to that place where people who don't care can use it easily – that's where hemp is."
Levi's partnered with Re:NewCell to create recyclable 501s made from a blend of organic cotton and wood pulp. The jeans can then be recycled where appropriate infrastructure exists a second, third, fourth and fifth time in the system to create new material for 501s. "There are very few end-of-life recovery scenarios where in the garment is actually doing the thing that the recycling is supposed to do which is reduce the need for virgin material," Dillinger says. "This one has that potential."
The third innovative 501 offered this year, a plant-based 501 with natural tags and inks, is dyed with natural indigo produced by Stony Creek Colors. Levi's took an equity stake in the small dye company to help it grow. The pre-reduced natural liquid indigo starts as plants in fields converted from tobacco farming in Tennessee and will make dying jeans much cleaner and safer for the industry at large. And while Levi's has a large stake in the company it didn't put any restrictions on the brand's customer base. "We're not looking for exclusivity here," Dillinger says. "We're looking for systems change, not brand change."
"We're not talking exclusively about the past," Dillinger says. "We're very much talking about the present, but in a context that I can say confidently, the product won't be experientially different than the past product." The range of Levi's new innovative 501s still look and wear like the Born-in-the-USA classics that vintage shops proudly display — they just do so in a way that's a bit better for subsequent generations. "It's very much the jean of the future that can feel still like your favorite friend."
More Top Stories:
The Complete Buying Guide to Levi’s Jeans: All Fits, Explained
Can Better Denim Change the World? Levi’s Is Betting on It
Levi's Most Sustainable Jeans Use a Revolutionary New Material