1967: Paul Newman: denim-on-denim. Enough said.
Photo: Getty Images

Who would have thought a pair of pants would morph into an icon? Here, a few highlights in the long story of an American pioneer.

By Robert Hackett
September 18, 2014

From workaday outerwear to the laps of multi-billionaires, blue jeans have withstood the wear and tear of time as an American icon.

Originally called overalls (even without the straps), the pants evolved from a practical solution to protect the laboring limbs of workers to a style suiting just about every demographic. The garment has fit the thighs of miners, farmhands, cowboys, rebels, hippies, rockers, hip-hop artists, fashionistas and businesspeople alike. Even Apple founder Steve Jobs adopted them, along with a black mock turtleneck, as his signature look.

Heck, you’ve probably worn a pair, too.

So how did a humble Gold Rush-era innovation in trousers come to define a nation? Fortune spoke with Levi Strauss historian and archivist Tracey Panek about the evolution of the attire. With her help and some research of our own, here’s a selection of the most important moments in denim history.


1853

1853: Bavarian immigrant and entrepreneur Levi Strauss cashes in on the Gold Rush by moving from New York to San Francisco to found a wholesale dry goods business, Levi Strauss & Co..
Photo: Fotosearch/Getty Images

Bavarian immigrant and entrepreneur Levi Strauss cashes in on the Gold Rush by moving from San Francisco to found a wholesale dry goods business, Levi Strauss & Co. He didn’t mine for gold—directly.


1873

Latvian émigré and tailor Jacob Davis and his fabric supplier, Strauss, patent and manufacture the “XX” pants, later dubbed the 501. The U.S. government grants the pair U.S. Patent No. 139,121 for rivet-reinforced pants under the heading, “IMPROVEMENT IN FASTENING POCKET-OPENINGS.”
Photo: Courtesy Levi Strauss & Co. Archives

Latvian émigré and tailor Jacob Davis and his fabric supplier, Strauss, patent and manufacture the “XX” pants, later dubbed the 501. The U.S. government grants the pair U.S. Patent No. 139,121 for rivet-reinforced pants under the heading, “IMPROVEMENT IN FASTENING POCKET-OPENINGS.”


1914

1914: Silent film actor William Hart stars in massively popular westerns wearing jeans, pioneering the image of the blue-jean-clad Western hero. After WWI, his celebrity gets a boost as the U.S. film industry—unlike that in war-torn Europe—flourishes.
Photo: Everett Collection

Silent film actor William Hart stars in massively popular westerns wearing jeans, pioneering the image of the blue-jean-clad Western hero. After WWI, his celebrity gets a boost as the U.S. film industry—unlike that in war-torn Europe—flourishes


1939

1939: John Wayne stars in the western film Stagecoach wearing a pair of Levi’s 501s.
Photo: Bettmann/Corbis

John Wayne stars in the western film Stagecoach wearing a par of Levi’s 501s. There are some things a man just can’t run away from…


1940s

1940s: U.S. soldiers and sailors serving overseas act as inadvertent ambassadors for jeans, introducing them as casual wear around the globe.
Photo: PhotoQuest/Getty Images

U.S. soldiers and sailors serving overseas act as inadvertent ambassadors for jeans, introducing them as casual wear around the globe.


1951

1951: Singer-actor extraordinaire Bing Crosby gets turned away from a fancy Canadian hotel for wearing all denim. Levi & Strauss sends him a custom denim tuxedo with a “Notice to All Hotel Men” declaring the outfit acceptable formal attire, thus allegedly originating the term “Canadian tuxedo.” (Richard Branson ordered and wore a replica recently.)
Photo Courtesy of Bing Crosby Enterprises

Singer-actor extraordinaire Bing Crosby gets turned away from a fancy Canadian hotel for wearing all denim. Levi & Strauss sends him a custom denim tuxedo with a “Notice to All Hotel Men” declaring the outfit acceptable formal attire, thus allegedly originating the term “Canadian tuxedo.” (Richard Branson ordered and wore a replica recently.)


1953

1953 : Marlon Brando makes the 501 even edgier in the classic motorcycle gang film The Wild One.
Photo: Getty Images

Marlon Brando makes the 501 even edgier in the classic motorcycle gang film The Wild One. Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?


1954

1954: Norma jeans? Marilyn Monroe pumps up the sex appeal of blue jeans in River of No Return. Guess jeans later evokes the famous pose in its ads.
Photo: John Swope —Time LIfe Pictures/Getty

Norma jeans? Marilyn Monroe pumps up the sex appeal of blue jeans in River of No Return. A New York Times critic observes, “It is a toss-up whether the scenery or the adornment of Marilyn Monroe is the feature of greater attraction.” Guess jeans later recreates the pose in ads featuring Anna Nicole Smith, among other models.


1954

1954: Don’t forget jean jackets. The marketing campaign “Marlboro Man” debuts as the tobacco industry seeks to make filtered cigarettes more masculine through association with cowboy attire. Giddyup.
Photo: Advertising Archive/Courtesy Everett Collection

Got a light? The marketing campaign “Marlboro Man” debuts as the tobacco industry seeks to make filtered cigarettes more masculine through association with cowboy attire, including denim of course. Giddyup.


1967

1967: Psychedelic rock band Jefferson Airplane records trippy radio advertisements for white Levi’s.
Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Psychedelic rock band Jefferson Airplane records trippy radio advertisements for white Levi’s.


1967

1967: Paul Newman: denim-on-denim. Enough said.
Photo: Getty Images

Paul Newman: denim-on-denim. Enough said.


1970

1970: Hey ho, let’s go. Punk rockers The Ramones liked their jeans cut snug and skinny. They showed off their signature look on the cover of their 1977 record, “Rocket to Russia.” Not even ripped knees could stop those cretins from hoppin’.
Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Hey ho, let’s go. Punk rockers The Ramones liked their jeans cut snug and skinny. They showed off their signature look on the cover of their 1977 record, “Rocket to Russia.” Not even ripped knees could stop those cretins from hoppin’.


1976

1976 : Heiress Gloria Vanderbilt launches her designer denim jeans.
Photo: Evelyn Floret— The Life Images Collection/Getty

Heiress Gloria Vanderbilt launches her designer denim jeans. Never one to miss a beat, Saturday Night Live comedian Gilda Radner later jokes, “She’s taken her good family name and put it on the asses of America.”


1979

1979: Scantily clad Catherine Bach wears ultra-short “Daisy Dukes” in The Dukes of Hazzard TV series. Celeb Jessica Simpson later reprises the role on film in 2005.
Photo: Warner Bros/Everett Collection

Scantily clad Catherine Bach wears ultra-short “Daisy Dukes” in The Dukes of Hazzard TV series. Celeb Jessica Simpson later reprises the role on film in 2005.


1980s

1980s: Hip-hop popularizes baggy jeans.
Photo: Ron Galella—WireImage

Hip-hop popularizes baggy jeans. On the opposite end of the spectrum, punk rockers and metalheads stick to skinny jeans.


 1981

1981: Fifteen-year-old supermodel Brooke Shields shocks audiences with in a Calvin Klein designer jeans ad. “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins?” she asks. “Nothing.”.
Photo: Gaslight Advertising Archives

Fifteen-year-old supermodel Brooke Shields shocks audiences with in a Calvin Klein designer jeans ad. “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins?” she asks. “Nothing.”.


1984

Tom Gralish—Zumapress.com

Born in the USA? Heck, yeah. Bruce Springsteen’s 501-swadled buttocks stand guard in front of an American flag. You can bet he danced in the dark in those, too.


2000

2001: Brittney Spears and Justin Timberlake cross the red carpet as a couple at the American Music Awards in full denim garb.
Photo: Mark J. Terrill—AP

Time magazine names Levi’s 501s the “Fashion Item of the 20th Century.” A year later, Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears take that counsel to the extreme on the red carpet at the 2001 American Music Awards.


2009

2009: President Barack Obama throws the opening pitch at the Major League Baseball All-Star Game in what commentators describe as “mom” jeans.
Photo: Haraz N. Ghanbari—AP

President Barack Obama throws the opening pitch at the Major League Baseball All-Star Game in what commentators described as “mom” jeans. He later tells comedian Zach Galifianakis, “The truth is, generally I look very sharp in jeans.”


2014

2014: The Field of Jeans. Levi’s Stadium opens as the new home of the San Francisco 49ers.
Photo: Kevin Terrell—AP

The Field of Jeans. Levi’s Stadium opens as the new home of the San Francisco 49ers. And so blue jeans come full circle, from gold rush to pass rush.

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