May 20 marks the anniversary of one of fashion’s iconic garments, the Levi’s 501 jeans. Since the first model in 1873, the American brand has followed a path that has led its most famous denim model to become first a reliable workwear, then a symbol of countercultures born over the decades of the second half of the 20th century.
For a century the Levi’s 501 has retained many of its features, which have also made it a fetish for vintage and archival fashion enthusiasts, but small details have also changed that might help you date the last pair you bought at the yard sale you went to last month. From the RED TAB to the patch, are you sure you’re familiar with Levi’s 501s? What about your particular pair?
One of the rarest pieces in existence are Levi’s Calico jeans, an original 501 believed to be the oldest in the world and dating back to 1900. They were discovered in a former mine in Calico, a ghost town in California’s Mojave Desert, where a teenager had gone for a hike. found a room full of jeans she took the best-preserved ones, patched them up and wore them a few times, before noticing on the label a familiar inscription: LS&Co.
Marilyn Monroe was one of the first women to wear 501 jeans in a movie, the film was River of No Return (1954) directed by Otto Preminger.
According to Bob Calacello (former editor of Interview magazine), Andy Warhol is credited with the popularity of the jeans+blazer pairing, which the pop art artist used to sport while wearing Levi’s 501s himself. Before him, no one had paired a suit jacket in that way.
If your 501s on the inner label have indicated a possible shrinkage of “about 8%” it means that they are pre-1981. From that date in fact the indication changes to “about 10%.”
THE RED TAB
The famous label on the back of the 501 was added in the 1930s to distinguish Levi’s jeans from the competition. It is one of the jeans’ signatures along with the button closure, copper rivets, and leather label.
If your Levi’s has the RED TAB on only one side, it means that the 501 was manufactured before 1951. In fact, in the early 1950s the word “LEVI’S” began to appear on both sides of the red tab.
If the label on your pair is written with a capital “E” it means they are made before 1971. Pre-1971 RED TAB is commonly referred to as Big E. Another common feature of vintage Levi’s, however, is the small “V” seam that runs along the edge of the button closure. This stitch runs from the top of the waistband to about a quarter of an inch below the waistband itself, and then back up at an acute angle to the waist button, creating a sort of “V.” This was a standard feature of 501s until 1969.
If the Two Horse brand patch on your jeans is attached to the belt loop, it means they are pre-1970. Around 1969-71 (and until recently) Levi’s introduced a thinner cardboard patch that had a tear-off section on the right side, which allowed more space between the patch and the first belt loop.
If you read the number 501 XX on the patch then you have a very good model of denim on your hands. When the Two Horse brand patch was first introduced (1886), Levi’s used the XX symbol to indicate that the denim was eXXtra strong, referring to the use of denim from Amoskeag Denim Mills in Manchester, New Hampshire. The “XX” inscription last appeared on the transitional 1966-68 501xx 501 model and was not reintroduced until 1987.
The inscription “Every Garment Guaranteed” indicates a model produced until about 1963. The 501XX Jeans used to have this inscription on the Two Horse patch above the lot and size numbers, but it appears that this indication was dropped during 1963.
What material is “The Two Horse” patch made of? If the one on your 501’s is leather they were manufactured before 1954, when the leather patch was phased out in place of a thicker Jacron (faux leather) one.