Levi’s is perhaps the most iconic American jean, starting out as a heavy-duty workwear item and soon becoming a stylish fashion piece. Today, Levi’s jeans remain popular all over the world, but are they truly a great investment? Let’s take a closer look at their 501 model in this installment of our Is It Worth It? review series to find out.
The History of Levi’s
The company was founded in May of 1853 when German-Jewish immigrant Levi Strauss (born Löb Strauß) moved from New York to San Francisco to open up the west coast branch of his brother’s dry goods and clothing business.
To this day, the headquarters of the Levi’s brand is still based in San Francisco, in particular, Levi Strauss Plaza or Levi’s Plaza as it is more popularly known since 1981.
When the company started, it was selling dry goods and wholesale items. A Latvian-Jewish immigrant named Jacob Davis would purchase bolts of denim fabric from the household department of this business. He noticed that customers were purchasing quantities of excess denim to repair parts of their clothes. This gave him the idea to use copper rivets to reinforce the stress points of the clothing – areas such as pocket corners and the base of the trouser fly.
The problem was Jacob Davis didn’t have enough money to purchase the patent for the design. Therefore, it was proposed that he and Levi Strauss go into business together. Levi accepted the offer. In 1873, the patent was granted and the pair began making their denim overalls.
The first pair of Levi’s 501 jeans were manufactured in 1890. Unfortunately, the company records before 1906 were lost, so not even Levi’s knows the origin of the 501 number, but we do know that it simply ties into the original riveted jeans.
Levi Strauss passed away in 1902 at the age of 73, but the company was taken over by his nephews. Descendants of the Strauss family run this business to this day. Until the 1920s and 30s, jeans were very much viewed as workwear. For more information about the evolution of the 501 model, check out Heddel’s comprehensive guide.
The Iconic ‘Workwear’
With the denim fabric being much tougher and more resilient than what’s being offered today, it was seen as an ideal thing to wear in harsh work conditions. Indeed, it was the hard-wearing nature of the jeans, which saw an increase in popularity among the general public. People would return from vacations with tales of their own hard-wearing jeans.
The jeans were also popular during the Second World War and were even listed as an essential commodity. This also saw a change in design to the 501 model, where a rivet at the base of the fly and a cinched part of the waste at the back of the jean were removed to conserve materials. These features have since remained vacant on the 501 model.
Of course, we can’t talk about jeans without talking about the 1953 film “The Wild One” or the 1955 film “Rebel Without A Cause.” In these films, Marlon Brando and James Dean, respectively, wear jeans in their roles.
This signifies the change in society with the creation of subcultures with greasers, mods, and rockers. Appealing to the younger post-war generation, jeans were being seen as a rebellious departure from style from what their parents and grandparents were wearing. Jeans had made their mark in history as much more than just workwear.
Levi’s capitalized on a move toward a much more casual style in the 1960s and 70s when the “blue jeans craze” was born. The company did face some financial troubles in the 1980s and 90s due to competition from other jean brands such as Dockers, Lees, and Wranglers.
That being said, the company has remained more or less profitable until the present day, with the 501 model remaining one of the most popular items they sell. The brand’s lineup has gone on to expand to include women’s, children’s wear, and a full range of casual items to go along with this denim collection.
A Closer Look at Levi’s 501
It’s worth mentioning that there are over 40 different style options available under the 501 model on the Levi’s website. Not only that, but the 501 style might be finished in different fabrics or have different details. If that wasn’t confusing enough, some styles aren’t the same all over the world and some are area specific.
We decided to go with the most classic pair we could find, so for this review, we’re looking at the 501 original fit, rinsed in dark wash, or if you’re in Europe, the style might be called “one wash.”
Iconic Styling Details of the 501 Jeans
We chose these jeans because they are a classic mid-blue color with tan stitching – kind of the quintessential jeans if you will.
They feature the Levi’s red tag on the left-hand side of the right back pocket. There are two back pockets, two front pockets at the hip, and the right pocket also has a traditional, smaller pocket right below the waistband. Fun fact: this pocket was actually designed to carry a man’s pocket watch while he was at work.
There’s also a leather-looking patch on the back of the waistband, above the right back pocket, which has a vintage styling and a light tan beige color. The company’s wording and logo appear here in red. This is similar to what was shown in the older styles of their workwear jeans. Characteristic of the 501 model, the jeans are finished with a button fly.
The buttons and rivets at the stress points are made of a copper-colored alloy, but we couldn’t find much information on their website to really tell us what metal this was. Although the original rivets were made of copper, we doubt that’s the case today. Copper has a chemical reaction with moisture and this could cause discoloration on the jeans.
Denim Fabric: The Classic Blue Jeans
With the different finishes available within the 501 style, it’s easy to see how there’s a difference in fabric that is used and how in recent years, the 501 has been more about focusing on fit rather than staying true to the original 501 model.
The finish we’ve chosen is made of 100 cotton denim, which is machine-washable, although the Levi’s website does state that you should wash your jeans sparingly; at most, once every ten wears. Naturally, this will help prolong the life of your jeans as each wash will break down the fibers and also increase the fading on the jeans.
It’s important to note that these jeans are not made from a selvedge denim. Selvedge denim, particularly from Japan or Turkey, is considered of the highest quality among manufactured jeans. This is where you can see the edge of the bolt of fabric that the jeans were made from on the outseam of the jeans.
Although selvedge denim is of the highest quality, it’s also very expensive and needs to be made on vintage looms. Levi’s materials and manufacturing all take place in places like Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and Indonesia to save on production costs. The denim in these jeans is not of the same high quality of selvedge, but they are a good, strong, and sturdy cotton, which has a great color.
A good benefit here is that these jeans will not have as long of a break-in period as selvedge jeans would. So, they can be more comfortable in a shorter time span.
We Chose The ‘Original’ Straight Fit
The 501s are a straight fit jean. They sit just above the hip with a medium rise and no tapering in the leg. I was quite surprised by the medium-rise on these jeans. Given that this is the original model of the 501, I expected it just a little bit higher on the waistband.
It’s worth mentioning that there are several different versions of the 501 model within the Levi’s vintage clothing lineup. However, the style that we’re going to be reviewing today is the readily available 501 model from the standard collection.
It’s not an uncomfortable fit by any means, and I can certainly understand the move toward a lower rise in the waistband, given the trend for things to be a little bit more casual in recent years. It’s easy to see how medium-rise can be considered a higher rise in today’s market with so many jeans and trousers being made available with such low rises.
That being said, I was impressed to find a full range of sizes being made available in single increments, so you can find the perfect size for your waist. I found that by going about an inch less than my normal trouser size, I was able to get a great fit straight away.
The straight fit against the leg is preferable for a much more classic wardrobe and will work with a number of items and a classic wardrobe as well.
Other Factors to Consider When Buying Levi’s 501s
We’ve already touched on some of the confusion around some of the different fit differences within the 501 range, but things get even more confusing when it comes to the price.
Levi’s seems to base much of their pricing based on location. For example, the pair of 501 jeans that we’re looking at today can be found for $59.50 if you’re in North America, or £75 if you’re in the United Kingdom. Even with a fluctuating exchange rate, that’s still quite the difference in price.
Our Experience Buying 501s
Levi’s can be found in department stores, outlet stores, and can be a staple when vintage shopping. But in determining their worth, we decided to go straight to Levi’s to find a brand new pair.
The in-store experience was actually quite good for us. The assistant we spoke to was knowledgeable, not too pushy, which made for a great experience. It’s worth noting that the service was above what we expected for a company that’s so large and has over 500 stores across the world, and then that everyone’s experience might be the same.
The service was really useful to us. After shopping around on the Levi’s website, it was great to get some assistance in looking for the exact style that we wanted. This is because the website in itself can be a little bit confusing. With such a large range of products and so many different styles and finishes within those products, we found it quite challenging to find the exact thing that we were looking for.
Although the online store has some detailed images about the products that you’re looking at, it would have been great to see some more information about the metals found in the buttons and rivets and maybe some images showcasing how the jeans might fade over time as things are going to be unique to your jeans as they’re supposed to get better with age and look unique to what you’re wearing.
All that being said, the 501 jeans that we purchased are a great pair of jeans. They are a classic style that epitomizes blue jeans, and it’s easy to see how Levi’s is so popular all over the world.
Are Levi’s 501s Worth It?
On average, yes. We think that they’re worth it. Naturally, as the price of Levi’s jeans can fluctuate from different locations, it can be easy to assume that it might be more worth it if you purchase in one location than the next.
Of course, we’re not advocating that you need to go travel across the planet just to buy a pair of jeans, but our point is that the price difference across locations is something to consider.
O balance, with a pair of jeans that we’ve reviewed today coming in under $100 or £100, the overall make, quality, and material is something that I would expect at this price point.
The 501s might not work as well for someone who cares more about the current trends and the latest fashions. As the overall style of the Levi’s jeans 501 model hasn’t changed much over the years, it can be seen as more of a dealbreaker. These jeans are meant to be timeless, not fleeting. With that in mind, the Levi’s 501 model will work wonderfully with someone who has a more classic style and fit. The fit of the modern 501s is surprisingly versatile for a wide range of body types.
For regular readers of the Gentleman’s Gazette, we can imagine that these are going to be the ideal jeans for you to include in your wardrobe as the straight fit, the deep blue color will be an ideal thing that will work well with a lot of things in your wardrobe. Perhaps, even a piece of soft casual tailoring.