Full disclosure: I’m a longtime fan of the Levi’s 501. I’ve got a few pairs of the straight-leg style that get regular wear. My favorite pair came into my life by chance. I was wandering down a quiet street in San Francisco’s NoPa neighborhood when a laundromat owner dumped a pile of forgotten garments by a corner trashcan. On top was a pair of perfectly worn and faded vintage Levi’s 501s. I took them home, washed them and tried them on — a perfect fit, noticeably better than any jeans I owned. It was meant to be. Since then, I’ve picked up a few other pairs of vintage 501s, all unique in their aging, but familiar in their fit.
While Levi’s has produced the 501 for 145 years, certain features have evolved and changed over time. The brand now offers the silhouette in stretch denim and in premium denim. You can also choose between a tapered silhouette and a skinny fit. All the new iterations aside, I’ve been most curious how the stock 501, the non-stretch Original Fit jean, fares in the modern marketplace saturated with denim styles. So, to see for myself, I got my hands on a couple pairs of off-the-rack 501s to explore how the most iconic jean stands up in the 21st century.
The Good: This is a time-tested style — Levi’s has produced the design for almost a century-and-a-half. The straight-leg fit is appropriate for almost everyone. Being Levi’s flagship product, the style is widely available and relatively inexpensive. What’s more, it’s a durable pant that should last for years, developing a unique fading over the time.
Who They’re For: The 501 Original Fit is a no-nonsense jean that is flattering on a range of body types. It doesn’t pander to fashion trends and has an unabashedly straight leg silhouette. It’s neither skinny nor baggy. The 12.5-ounce denim is appropriate for a range of seasons and the jean comes in a variety of washes to suit your personal taste.
Watch Out For: According to some online reviews, the 501 Original Fit is plagued with manufacturing inconsistencies. As this is Levi’s budget 501 produced at high volume, there are more issues with sizing than with the brand’s higher-priced options. Some reviewers found that that listed waist size didn’t correspond to their actual size — my advice: just buy from a site that has a strong return policy. That aside, these are workhorse jeans. Don’t get them if you want some selvedge to show off or if you’re looking for denim with an intricate origin story.
Alternatives: If you’re not into the straight leg silhouette, Levi’s offers the 501CT, which has a taper from the knee to the ankle. Or, if you like the style but you’d rather have a bit of stretch for comfort, Levi’s also offers various stretch versions of the jean. Want to invest in a Levi’s 501 that is closer to what the vintage models were like? Try the Levi’s Vintage Clothing 1947 501 — at $260, it’s noticeably more expensive though.
On the other hand, other brands offer a good range of value options. Wrangler makes a classic straight leg pant for $34, and Uniqlo and Everlane both sell stretch denim for $50 and $68, respectively. Secondhand sites are yet another option for budget-conscious 501 lovers. Check eBay and Etsy for a range of modestly-priced jeans from the past few decades.
Review: To test the 501 Original Fit, I picked up two starkly different washes: a rigid unwashed denim and a light stonewash denim. While the soft hand feel of the stonewashed pair created a different wear experience, the fit of both pairs was spot on. When I talked with Paul Dillinger, Levi’s Head of Global Product Innovation, about jean quality, he mentioned the importance of fit. “The Levi’s 501 jean is world famous, and is also made in factories in nearly every region where it’s sold,” he said. “It’s important that the fit is absolutely consistent wherever it’s sold.”
While Levi’s offers high-end vintage reproductions of different 501 jeans, they come at a premium. The stock 501, on the other hand, is geared at a budget consumer who still needs a good-fitting, durable pant. The front pockets are reinforced with rivets while bar tacks reinforce the back pockets. The five-pocket style has a button fly that offers greater longevity than a zip-fly. “With more than a century of experience, we know the best place to use a chain-stitch versus a lock stitch; or where to use a double-needle felled seam versus a simple single-needle straight stitch,” Dillinger said. “We know where to put a rivet or bar-tack to create strength, and what type of sewing thread is best suited to each type of operation.”
While not as immediately comfortable as my faded and beat-up vintage 501s, the Original Fit pants featured the same straight-leg fit that looks equally good with boots as it does cuffed with sneakers. Uniqlo and Everlane use stretch denim in their affordable jeans, but the Levi’s 501 is made with 100 percent cotton. The fit sits at the waist and has a straight leg that is regular through the thigh. While I wear wider leg chinos and slim-fit jeans as well, the democratic fit of the 501 feels like home — it’s comfortable and allows my personality to show. The fabric quality in the Original Fit jeans isn’t what you’d find in vintage reproduction or premium denim from Japan, but that’s to be expected. And, that no way means these aren’t a good option for everyday wear. In fact, they may be the best option for everyday wear — at least, for shoppers looking for a classic-fitting, well-made jean. “From the beginning, Levi’s has been known for quality,” Dillinger said. “We have vintage jeans in our archives that are over 100 years old that could still be worn today, so we know that our product can last.”
Verdict: The 501 Standard Fit is the gold-standard for an affordable classic jean. It’s not made from premium denim, and that’s just the point. It’s made from solid, serviceable denim, and it’s produced in overseas factories so it can be sold at an accessible price-point. The silhouette of the jean is timeless and looks great on anyone, no matter age or body-type. As much as the rest of the fashion world changes, the Levi’s 501 stays the same — we should all take solace in that.
What Others Are Saying:
• “Few pieces of clothing genuinely deserve the title of “icon.” The Levi’s 501 sits right at the top of that very short list. It’s the kind of status that comes with being the flagship style from the brand that invented the modern blue jean.” — Jonathan Evans, Esquire
• “The 501 has gone through more than twenty makeovers in its already long life and many of the early models are difficult if not impossible to trace down today. To indicate their rarity (and value), Levi’s themselves bought a pair of c1890 501’s in 1997 which cost them approximately 25,000 dollars!” — Mads Jakobsen, Heddels
• “The waist hit right at my true waist and was not too tight or too loose. As for every other aspect of the fit, I could only describe it as the “everyman fit”. This is not a slim straight fit but a true straight fit from top to bottom.” — Dustin Weidner, Denimology
Fabric: 100 percent cotton
Fastening: Button fly
Silhouette: Straight leg
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