Fashion History Lesson: The Bond Between Ladies and Levi's - Fashionista

Fashion History Lesson: The Bond Between Ladies and Levi's

From cowgirls to “It” girls, Levi’s jeans have helped to empower women through fashion.
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Women wearing jeans in the 1930s. Image courtesy of Levi's®

Women wearing jeans in the 1930s. Image courtesy of Levi's®

If you glance through street style photos from across the globe, one thing sticks out: Levi's are EVERYWHERE. Although jeans have become the de facto uniform for fashion editors, models and everyone else on the street, they started out as humble pieces of men's workwear, prized more for their durability over any type of "cool" factor. Between the time when Levi's jeans were first introduced in 1873 and today, the denim industry has undergone massive changes that reflect cultural shifts, including the ongoing fight for gender equality. Levi's recognized the need for women to have practical and sturdy trousers long before most brands chose to recognize that women have two legs. When so much of women's fashion is deemed as frivolous, impractical and ever-changing, it's interesting to consider that one of the most common pieces of women's clothing was actually made to be durable, practical and, most importantly, exclusively for men. Here, we take a look back at when and how Levi's jeans became part of women's wardrobes and why they continue to be a staple of modern fashion.

WHERE IT ALL STARTED

Before his name became synonymous with jeans, Levi Strauss was the owner of a wholesale dry goods business in San Francisco that sold supplies to miners during the Gold Rush. After patenting the process of riveting pants in 1873, Levi Strauss became the originator of what is perhaps the most iconic garment in Western history. Despite common belief, Levi Strauss & Co. did not invent what we know as "jeans": there were plenty of similar denim pants made before. However, by adding rivets to areas that typically undertook the most stress, such as the pockets, Levi's found a way to make pants that would stand the test of time. These "waist overalls," as they were officially called until the 1950s, had one back pocket, a watch pocket, a buckled cinch to adjust the waist, suspender buttons and a rivet in the crotch to avoid unsightly ripping.

When Levi Strauss first introduced his signature trousers, he definitely didn’t have women in mind. During the 1870s and 1880s, women's fashion was focused on the cumbersome bustle silhouette. Still, that didn't stop plenty of rebellious females from adopting men's Levi's to ride horses, work on farms, or engage in other physical activities long before fashion magazines or mainstream Western society deemed them as appropriate. 

Images depicting the original "Freedom-Alls", courtesy of Levi's®

Images depicting the original "Freedom-Alls", courtesy of Levi's®

 A TASTE OF FREEDOM 

During World War I, many women engaged in physical labor for first time to fulfill the duties of men who had been shipped off to combat. From factories to farms, women in these labor-intensive jobs found that men's trousers, including Levi's jeans, were an essential part of their wartime wardrobe. In 1918, as the war was coming to an end, Levi's introduced a line of women's garments called "Freedom-Alls", which were one-piece garments that consisted of cotton tunics connected to balloon pants. According to Levis Strauss & Co. historian Tracey Paneck, "The name celebrated the end of World War I and the freedom of movement the garment provided for women who, in the words of the advertisement, could use them for 'work or recreation.'"

By 1922, the brand was selling khaki hiking togs and jackets for women, although their classic jeans were still only made for men. Loosely cut trousers for ladies were starting to become popularized by designers like Coco Chanel, but they were mostly worn by fashionable young women for leisure pursuits (like beachside lounging) or as early eveningwear, mostly in the form of luxurious silk pyjama suits. [1] Aside from these fashionable options, regular women's trousers were still deemed socially unacceptable for most situations, and ladies in search of long-lasting and form-fitting denim pants had to settle for borrowing from the men's section until the 1930s.

Advertising feature from the May 15, 1935 issue of Vogue, courtesy of Levi's®

Advertising feature from the May 15, 1935 issue of Vogue, courtesy of Levi's®

THE COWBOY CRAZE

Although Levi's jeans continued to be best known as men's workwear through the 1920s, Levi's became synonymous with the stylish image of the American cowboy in the 1930s. At that time, the world became fascinated by Western movies and the rugged looks donned by stars like John Wayne and Gary Cooper. Levi's tapped into this cowboy craze with advertising that highlighted the brand's connection to life out West. At the same time, thousands of Americans from eastern states were boarding trains to vacation in the Dude Ranches of California, Arizona, Nevada and other western states. These ranches were actually vacation destinations that provided visitors with the opportunity to get a taste of Western life through living on a ranch and doing hard labor (fun!). In 1934, one Vogue article told readers to, "go West […] and you will come back with a vastly altered point of view," later adding that Levi Strauss jeans and sturdy shirts were the only clothing that you really needed. [2] Dude Ranch visitors ventured back home proudly showing off their worn-in Levi's jeans as badges of honor.

Advertising images from the 1940s, courtesy of Levi's®

Advertising images from the 1940s, courtesy of Levi's®

THE FIRST JEANS FOR WOMEN

The popularity of Dude Ranches inspired Levi's to introduce the first line of jeans for women in 1934. Known as Lady Levi's, the jeans altered men's cuts to better fit the female form. Most importantly, as Paneck points out, Levi's introduced these at a "time when women's pants were still largely unaccepted," making this a relatively bold move in the clothing industry. However, aside from wearing Lady Levi's on Dude Ranches, camping trips or in the privacy of their own backyards, most women kept to wearing skirts for day-to-day life. Based on catalogs and advertisements from this time period, it seems that Levi's knew that jeans would soon go beyond the classification of "workwear" to become fashionable staples in every woman’s wardrobe.

Advertising images from the 1950s, courtesy of Levi's®

Advertising images from the 1950s, courtesy of Levi's®

ALL-AMERICAN FASHION

During World War II, American women were again called upon to help in factories and other labor-intensive jobs while men were fighting overseas. Denim-clad women became a symbol of the war effort, exemplified by the image of Rosie the Riveter. After the war, denim clothing became more accepted in American society, becoming associated with leisure activities instead of being primarily labeled as workwear. Levi's jeans became symbolic of the relaxed and prosperous vision of the American way of life, which gave the company new opportunities to expand their distribution nationwide. At the same time, societal changes stemming from the war also made women's pants more accepted by mainstream Western culture for the first time in history. By the 1950s, Levi's jeans had become a casual favorite of suburban moms and construction workers alike.    

Marilyn Monroe photographed by Philippe Halsman, 1952. Image courtesy of Levi's®

Marilyn Monroe photographed by Philippe Halsman, 1952. Image courtesy of Levi's®

REBEL, REBEL

During the 1950s, Levi's jeans also became a symbol of youth and rebellion, thanks in part to iconic denim looks of television and movie "bad boys" like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953) and Elvis Presley, who was drawing plenty of attention to his jeans through his infamous hip-shaking. The media portrayal of rebellious young people wearing jeans shifted Levi's away from wholesome territory and even led to some schools to ban denim in classrooms. Of course, telling young men (and women) that they couldn't wear jeans only made them more desirable, and soon they became the most coveted item in an American teenager's wardrobe. Levi's got a whole new look when Marilyn Monroe wore them in the film Clash by Night (1952) and later in The Misfits (1961), which was possibly the first time in popular culture that jeans were seen as having sex appeal for women. Part of that appeal was based on the fact that women were appropriating a garment that had originally been intended for male labor. Jeans on a female body signified power, rebellion, and strength—what’s sexier than that? 

Woodstock Festival, 1969. Image courtesy of Levi's®

Woodstock Festival, 1969. Image courtesy of Levi's®

CULTURAL REVOLUTION

The 1960s and 1970s are characterized by a number of social movements, including the sexual revolution and fight for equal rights. Jeans became the uniform for college students, hippies and anyone else who identified as part of the "counter-culture." Through another societal shift, jeans became symbolic of independence, freedom and a move away from the traditions of the past. On top of that, denim was something that both men and women could wear, making it a sartorial symbol of gender equality. "Levi's has always been a company built on strong values and we pride ourselves on being pioneers in the fight for equal rights for all," Karyn Hillman, Chief Product Officer of Levi's, told Fashionista.

Advertising images from the early 1960s, courtesy of Levi's®

Advertising images from the early 1960s, courtesy of Levi's®

As gender stereotypes and sartorial codes became challenged in the mainstream, jeans started to be worn almost everywhere, and Levi's became one of America's most desirable exports worldwide. The brand responded to this this surge in popularity by releasing jeans in a wide variety of styles and colors, marketing them based on their aesthetic and fashionable values over durability and comfort. Young people across the globe became obsessed with finding the perfect type of jean style, whether it be faded, cropped, bleached or decorated with patches and embroidery. In 1973, Levi Strauss & Co. was presented with the Neiman Marcus Fashion Award for "the single most important American contribution to worldwide fashion." [1] By the 1980s, "designer denim" filled glossy magazines with images of sexy models and movie stars donning jeans that were emblazoned with designer names like Calvin Klein. Despite any aesthetic changes, most jeans were still based off of the iconic Levi's 501s.

Jessi Quednau wearing Levi's in Berlin, November, 2016. Photo: Christian Vierig/Getty Images

Jessi Quednau wearing Levi's in Berlin, November, 2016. Photo: Christian Vierig/Getty Images

THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY

So, what makes Levi's so popular after all of these years? "With so much choice out there, people are gravitating to authenticity, so being the trusted original is a definite advantage in a competitive market place," says Hillman. Since the 1970s, Levi's has outlasted tons of trends, and has also adapted to fit many. (Let's not even talk about those ultra-low hip-huggers of the early aughts.) "There's magic in this marriage of authenticity and modernity," Hillman adds. "It comes down to the fact that denim and people are always evolving."

In recent years, the brand has made attempts to better fit a more diverse group of women's bodies. In 2010, Levi's unveiled their Curve ID collection, which offered three different fits for women of different body types. A few years later, the brand undertook an even more ambitious project to redesign their entire denim collection for women based on two years of extensive research through interviewing and observing women of different ages, body types and ethnicities in cities across Asia, Europe and the U.S. Although the fashion industry still struggles to represent and cater to all types of women and body shapes, steps like these are definitely going in the right direction.

Just like in decades before, women today proudly wear jeans as they engage in the ongoing fight towards gender equality worldwide. As fashions change and society evolves, women continue to love the practical nature of jeans, and, fortunately, now they don’t have to steal them from the men's section.

Sources not linked:

[1] Mendes, Valerie and Amy De La Haye. Fashion Since 1900. London: Thames & Hudson, 2010.

[2] van der Kley, Francesca. “Wrangling the Dude.” Vogue. March 1, 1934.