Levi Strauss: A History of American Style
White jeans designed by Keith Haring for a Macy’s Passport show, Jake Gyllenhaal’s white T and denim from Brokeback Mountain, and Madonna’s shorn cut-offs and fishnets are all displayed in Levi Strauss: A History of American Style at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Star of the show is the man himself, courtly-looking Levi Strauss, responsible for an item of clothing both uniform and transformative. I spoke with co-curator Heidi Rabben about the Levi’s legacy.
Gwynned Vitello: As a San Francisco family and company, I’m guessing that Levi Strauss came to you with the idea for this exhibition?
Heidi Rabben: No, the opposite! I think, being the only institution in the Bay Area, actually the only in the world with the words Contemporary and Jewish in their title, it’s always been a matter of importance to us to look at our local history. What Jews in the Bay Area have made a really lasting impact? And certainly there is no figure who really even comes close in that regard other than Levi Strauss, who is a hometown hero and still a household name. He’s incredibly relevant 150 years ago after the invention he became most well-known for.
He was also such an important civic leader, not just with the Jewish community, although very much so, but also in the way he became involved in the civic structure of San Francisco. His role of businessman and philanthropist is unparalleled, whether you look at the Jewish side of it or not.
His biography is what we consider the classic immigrant story, right?
Yes, he was raised in a Jewish family in Bavaria, and facing persecution, came to the United States seeking opportunity and finding such immense and lasting success. I think, all of those factors combined, and knowing that San Francisco is where he moved to set up business and invent this item, that is probably the most ubiquitous item of clothing in the world, is a pretty incredible thing to reflect on and remember. So, I think it’s something that this museum has always been dreaming about, to some extent.
Have you ever organized a kind of fashion and anthropology show before, and how is it a different challenge?
Strangely enough, the first show I did when I joined the museum was an anthropological show called Veiled Meanings, which was about Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, two communities who are not often given a voice through the lens of fashion. My background is in contemporary art, so Veiled Meanings was my first that was sort of historical and also about materials and fashion. Justin Limoges, my co-curator in this show, and I benefited from a curatorial adviser who has had more experience than either of us in knowing where to go to get additional loans outside of our archive, and advised us how to show the garments, how to actually mount and style them on mannequins.
I like how the show is brightly lit to fit the bold, outdoor feel of the brand, as well as starting with the storyline about how Levi Strauss arrived here. I had no idea that Jews were not allowed to make a living selling wares in the “old country.”
There was a law enacted called the Juden Edict that basically placed restrictions on the vocations Jews could follow at the time. Levi Strauss’s father, Hirsch, was a peddler, which, at that time, was much like a mobile salesman. Sometimes they had a wagon and there was a large history of that profession within the community in Europe. But, during this time in Germany, this law tried to relegate Jews to only work in small crafts like woodworking or sewing.
So they could not really make a reasonable living.
Yes, crafting, but not being the proprietor. Actually, what happened to Hirsch was that he was grandfathered in and allowed to continue because he was of the age where he could not learn a new profession, and an exception was made. But none of his sons could follow in their father’s footsteps to adopt the family business, as was the tradition. When Hirsch passed away, his widow decided that they should follow two of the children who had already gone to the United States and make a new life.
And that’s when they saw the possibilities in the Gold Rush, or am I skipping ahead?
His brothers had set up a dry goods business in New York that was thriving, so when the Gold Rush hit, they said, “Okay, you’re going to go out to the West Coast and set up a version of our dry goods business.” They wanted to meet the needs of the miners and farmers also seeking their fortune.
So, it’s a dry goods business, kind of like a general store?
They had a warehouse and sold things referred to as sundries, textiles, rope, things like that, goods that went out to a lot of different stops along the mining path. One of his clients was a tailor in Reno, Nevada, a man named Jacob Davis, who actually had the idea of putting copper rivets on cotton work pants. The story goes that Davis had a customer who complained, “My husband is really hard on his work pants. Is there anything you can do to make them stronger?” He had copper rivets he was using for something else, and decided to attach them to the actual work pants he was making, and realized he was on to something. Interestingly, he was a Jewish immigrant from Latvia. He approached Levi Strauss with his idea and asked if they might go in on this together, knowing that his supplier was a much more successful, well-resourced businessman. Together they obtained the patent in 1873 for the process of attaching copper rivets on work pants, and Strauss became a manufacturer.
There’s an image of the patent document at the beginning of the exhibition. It’s a great image and a presage to the company’s talent for branding and marketing, like the two-horse trademark for starters.
Yes, durability! Their whole philosophy, once the rivets became part of the pants, was that, as a miner or laborer, you could probably own just this one pair of pants for the rest of your life. That allowed them to really put their money where their mouth was, so a couple years later, they came up with the image of two horses moving in opposite directions, each attached to one leg of the pants, unsuccessfully trying to rip them apart.
The actual patch of the two-horse logo used to be in the leather. You have a pair of jeans in the show with the red tag. When did that appear?
There’s a moment when the two-horse trademark expires in the early 1900s, and that’s when brands like Lee and Wrangler start to emerge as competition—imitation is the highest form of flattery, right? As a response, and another way of distinguishing themselves as a brand, was this red tab. That gets added in 1935, showing they’re trusted, they’re the oldest blue jeans in the world.
They were still the dominant brand, and looking at all the ads and posters in the show, like the one with the dog, I’m guessing Levi Strauss was a good marketer.
You know, I’m pretty sure he was involved. We know that he had a good sense of humor. The dog biting the seat of the pants of the guy trying to jump the fence—durability!—was an early marketing image. There’s the Rube Goldberg booklets, and we have a couple little funny cartoons. He was always referenced as being very kind and approachable, actually referred to by his friends and employees as Uncle Levi.
I was impressed that he kept his workers on the payroll during the Depression.
He took on a very paternal role in the company and was very generous, structuring the company from an early stage to be socially responsible. The company was like a real family, and there’s a great story in the show about a salesman named Joe Frank who worked for the company for 70 years.
Oh, the bell bottoms! I wanted to know how Levi’s started making them.
During the 1960s, the hippies were doing it, cutting down the outward seam and inserting fabric, allegedly to allow more room for boots. It was a very artistic gesture, and certainly in the ’60s, that’s the major turning point when jeans became a marker of self expression. The show traces their legacy from workwear to Western wear, to this youthful rebellion, and now a blank canvas for expression.
There’s a woman named Peggy Casserta who owned a boutique on Haight Street called Mnasidika, and she asks a girl to produce some bell bottoms for her. She sells out in an instant, but they can't keep up, so Peggy decides to go down the street to the Levi’s headquarters. This young, funky girl walks in and the person she approaches dismisses her. As she’s leaving, an old man in his nineties sees her and asks if she needs help, she tells him what she is trying to do, and he introduces her to a seamstress. He asks how many she wants, but she can’t afford to pay, so he says, “Okay, I’ll put these on my personal line of credit.”
There are some other stories like that described in the exhibition, but that has to be everyone’s favorite. Another iteration of denim is the jean jacket, which we throw over everything. So tell me about how the company segued into women’s wear.
We have some early catalogs that show some different silhouettes and garments that were on sale, all the way back to the 1880s. The first women’s line was launched in 1934—Lady Levi’s—and it was about accommodating a more female shape, so, wider in the hip, narrower in the waist, and probably more tapered in the leg. We have several ads showing how they fit on a female body.
What prompted demand at the time?
Twofold, to be honest. This is slightly before World War II, when women had to take on manual labor in ways they hadn’t prior to that. We have photos of women working on the railroad. Additionally, the company understood that women were already wearing blue jeans, already adopting them. But, also, the timeline is in parallel with Western wear, prompted by the dude ranch craze in the 1930s, thanks to Hollywood. The American West caught on like a fashion moment, and a lot of people wanted to have that kind of cowboy look.
I liked the poster of the little boy and girl playing outdoors, wearing Levi’s overalls…
Yes, the company realized that they were turning from being a warehouse repository for dry goods into a manufacturing clothing company for miners, farmers, lumberjacks, etc., and then expanded. Who else needs durable clothing? Children and moms, for sure.
There’s dark-pressed denim, faded and tattered denim…
It’s interesting to see how the silhouette evolves, how it keeps changing, but the 501 in particular has hardly changed. The oldest pair of jeans in the show are from 1890, and the oldest in existence from 1873, so this item of clothing has remained relevant with basically very few changes, almost the perfect design to be able to withstand all of these years and still be an item worn by people all over the world. So yeah, 2023 will be 150 years of Levi’s blue jeans.
Levi Strauss: A History of American Style can be viewed virtually at thecjm.org and, at press time, plans are being made to extend the physical show beyond August 9, 2020.