In the beginning, there was one: the 501. In 1873, Levi Strauss and Co. received a patent for blue jeans reinforced with rivets and began producing stronger pants for working men. Over the past century, the brand’s jeans became a favorite of miners, laborers, rock stars and city-dwellers — a quintessential American garment that transcended all social classes. And since the advent of the 501, Levi’s has created dozens of fits for its ever-growing clientele.
All Levi’s jeans follow a similar naming sequence, beginning with the 501. But, the reason for the 501 designation is a bit of mystery. “Around 1890 is when we started calling our copper-riveted waist overalls the 501,” says Jonathan Cheung, the Senior Vice President of Design Innovation at Levi’s. The mystery surrounding the number is largely due to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 that destroyed many of the company’s files. “The 501 was a product identification number, but we don’t know the reason why it was a three digit number beginning with five,” said Cheung. So now, as an homage to the company’s legacy, all Levi’s fits are denoted by a number: 501, 505 and 511, among others. Each number denotes a cut designed for a specific style and body type.
Throughout the 20th century, Levi’s also made jeans outside of the 500 series. The 200s in the 1920s and 600s in the 1960s were both designed to be more affordable. But for ease of use, this guide will only describe the fits that are made by Levi’s today. Levi's Vintage Clothing and Levi’s Made and Crafted are not included in this guide.
Since the release of 501s, Levi’s expanded its offering to include numerous fits for different occasions and lifestyles. Currently, the brand offers well over a dozen silhouettes for men — here’s how to tell them apart.
Anti-fit: This is essential to Levi’s ethos. Jeans have a slightly looser fit, especially in the top block (see below). “The back of a pair of Levi’s doesn’t really hug a guy’s backside perfectly,” Cheung said.”That is deliberate.” The iconic image of Bruce Springsteen’s posterior on the cover of Born in the USA exemplifies this look.
Denim: The fabric used to make jeans, this strong cotton twill is dyed with indigo which gives it a distinctive blue shade. In recent years, this all-cotton fabric is woven with a small percentage of stretch material for comfort.
5-pocket: The foundational design of all blue jeans designed by Levi’s. The 5-pocket design is simple: two front internal pockets, one right-hand coin pocket — originally a “watch pocket” — and two back patch pockets.
Bar Tacks: A series of close machine-made stitches used to reinforce stress points throughout the jeans. Most noticeably, this feature is found on the top corners of the back pockets.
Rivets: Another foundational feature of all Levi’s, copper rivets are placed at a handful of stress points on the jeans.
Red Tab: This small tab is sewn on the outside of the right back pocket. It is one of a few ways Levi’s are instantly recognizable.
Arcuates: These two rows of yellow stitches form arcs on the back pockets of every pair of Levi’s.
Back Leather Patch: No pair of Levi’s is complete without the back right waistband patch showing two horses pulling apart a pair of jeans — a nod to Levi’s strength and durability. For practical purposes, this patch also shows the fit number and size.
Top Block: The part of the pant that includes the waist and hips. The cut here defines the fit through the thighs: skinny, slim or straight.
Waist: To find a waist size, measure across the top of a pair of jeans (laid flat) and double that number (i.e. a waist measured at 16 inches is tagged as a size 32). The waist measurement is also the first number of the tagged sized (i.e. 32 x 34).
Inseam: This is the second size listed on the tag. It refers to the measurement from the crotch to the leg opening.
Rise: The rise indicates where the jeans will sit on your waist. When measured, it is the distance between the crotch and the top of the fly. The greater the rise, the higher the jeans will sit on your waist. Typically, slimmer jeans have a lower rise.
Shrink-to-Fit: While only available in a small number of Levi’s 501s, shrink-to-fit jeans are made from denim that has not been pre-shrunk in the factory. Jeans cut from this denim will shrink when soaked and will form to your body. Levi’s claims these jeans will shrink up to 10 percent after the first soak.
The fit of the original blue jean has changed over the years, but you can still count on a straight cut that sits at the waist with a button fly. You won’t get more classic than this.
This is a raw denim version of the classic 501. These have the same straight fit as the standard 501s but are designed to shrink to your body. There are a few different ways to achieve the best fit, but the Levi’s-approved method is simple: buy a pair with your true waist size, but with an inseam that is two sizes larger than what you typically wear. Put the jeans on and sit in a warm bath. Then wear them until dry.
The 505 is the first zip-fly jean by Levi’s, created in 1967. With a similar cut to the 501, they sit at the waist, offer a bit more room in the thigh and have a straight fit down to the leg opening. Like the 501, this is a Levi’s classic.
This classic straight fit is designed for those with an athletic build. The 514 is cut for comfort, sitting below the waist with a regular fit through the thigh and a straight leg.
A cousin of the relaxed-fit 550 (see below), the 559 sits below the waist, has a roomy thigh and maintains a straight fit in the leg.
Roomy without being baggy, these are cut to sit below the waist and feature a loose, straight-fit leg. Along with the generous cut, these are woven with stretch material and have extra room in the seat.
The 502 offers a little bit more room in the thigh, sits slightly below the waist and includes a taper down to the leg opening. These feature a zip fly and a bit of stretch.
These are noticeable slimmer. Made from denim with stretch, these jeans have a lower rise and smaller leg opening. This gives you some mobility while not sacrificing the skinny jean look.
The 511 is Levi’s standard slim fit jean. These are made with denim that includes a bit of stretch, they sit below the waist and they have narrow leg opening.
These are a spinoff of the 511, but with a narrow fit through the thigh and a tapered leg. They also have a bit of stretch for comfort.
The 513 has a well-rounded fit — not slim but not straight. They sit below the waist, they’re slim through the thigh and they have a straight leg.
An update on the recently axed 517, these bootcut jeans are slim through the thigh and have a less-pronounced leg opening.
The most recent update to the Levi's lineup of boot-friendly jeans, the number-less Western Fit sits at the waist with a straight leg and a slight flare. It's also considerably flexible thanks to a heavy dose of polyamide, polyester and a bit of elastane. Unlike many of its other jeans, these feature extra belt loops, a reverse yoke and 'safety' felled inseams.
These are brand-new from Levi's. They have a high rise and flared bottoms.
While most of Levi's athletic fit jeans are tapered through the legs, these are not. These have a slim, although straight-ish, fit with plenty of rooms for bigger folks.
Made for those with an athletic build, these stretch jeans are an underground hit for Levi’s. These offer a relaxed fit with a slight taper.
First relaxed in 1985, the 550 was Levi’s initial take on a more relaxed fit. It is based on the 501, but features more room in the top block and thigh.