The Durability Of Levis, Woven Into America's Fabric

Host Rachel Martin talks with Levis archivist Lynn Downey about the brand's 140th anniversary this month.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

One hundred and forty years ago this month, a German immigrant named Levi Strauss patented the first pair of jeans ever made. During the California gold rush, Strauss traveled across the country to set up a West Coast branch of his family's dry goods business. That business changed forever when Strauss got a letter from a tailor named Jacob Davis.

LYNN DOWNEY: Now, Jacob Davis had started making men's work pants with little metal rivets in the corners of the pockets and other points of strain. And he wanted to mass manufacture his product, but he needed a business partner.

MARTIN: That's Lynn Downey, the official historian of Levi Strauss.

DOWNEY: The two of them worked out a business deal to make the first riveted work pants on May 20, 1873.

MARTIN: Tell us about that first pair. What made them different? You mentioned the reinforcements at critical points of the piece of clothing. But what was denim?

DOWNEY: Denim was a very old fabric that originated in Europe, first in France called serge denim. It was the toughest fabric around. And men had worn unriveted denim pants for decades as work wear.

MARTIN: After World War II, jeans picked up a different kind of symbolism. What was happening at that time?

DOWNEY: After the war, a lot of American soldiers who had worn Levi's jeans when they were on leave came back from war and needed to find themselves. So, what did they do? They put on their 501 jeans, white T-shirts and black leather jackets and they formed motorcycle clubs. But this was a little frightening to an America that wanted to get back to normal after four years of war. So, these men were considered a little terrifying. And this was picked up by Hollywood, and they decided that a way to make someone immediately recognizable as a rebel was to put them in blue jeans. And the quintessential movie that expresses this is the 1953 film "The Wild One" with Marlon Brando.

MARTIN: I mean, as we've been talking it's clear this was an item of clothing that was meant for men. When did the first pair of jeans especially made for woman, when did that happen?

DOWNEY: Levi Strauss and Company introduced the first jean for women in 1934, because company management saw that Western women were wearing men's jeans when they were working on their family ranches. And they needed sturdy clothing just like their men did. But you're very right, they still were very male. I graduated from a public high school in 1972. Girls at my school were not allowed to wear pants to school. But then I went to college. I could wear jeans for the first time in a classroom? It was a liberating moment for me. And today, young women have made it possible for jeans to be worn by women everywhere. I just think it's wonderful.

MARTIN: Lynn Downey is the historian for Levi Strauss. She joined us on the line from San Francisco. Thanks so much, Lynn.

DOWNEY: It's my pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

KEITH URBAN: (Singing) I pull my blue jeans on, I pull my old blue jeans on...

MARTIN: This is NPR News.

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