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.
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.
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.”
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
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…
U.S. soldiers and sailors serving overseas act as inadvertent ambassadors for jeans, introducing them as casual wear around the globe.
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.)
Marlon Brando makes the 501 even edgier in the classic motorcycle gang film The Wild One. Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?
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.
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.
Psychedelic rock band Jefferson Airplane records trippy radio advertisements for white Levi’s.
Paul Newman: denim-on-denim. Enough said.
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’.
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.”
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.
Hip-hop popularizes baggy jeans. On the opposite end of the spectrum, punk rockers and metalheads stick to skinny jeans.
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.”.
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.
"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.
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.”
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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