Levi Strauss: A History of American Style

Levi Strauss: A History of American Style

Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco

736 Mission Street, San Francisco.
(415) 655-7800
through August 9, 2020
thecjm.org

            Aw shoot!  I forgot to wear my new tight-fitting black Levi’s to the Levi’s show!  But then, I was so surrounded by Levi’s history, paraphernalia, photographs, pants, and all things Levi’s that it didn’t really matter.

            The show takes place at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum, and it’ll be there through August 9th.  Most of the items–photographs, letters, film clips, and, of course, Levi’s from the company’s beginnings in 1873 to the present–are on loan from the Levi Strauss office in San Francisco.

            The back story is well known: Levi (born Löb) Strauss was born in the Bavarian town of Buttenheim in 1829 and arrived in California in 1853.  In San Francisco, he became a valued member of the Jewish community and a wholesaler of dry goods.  In 1873, he teamed up with tailor J. W. Davis, who had developed the idea of securing the pockets of work pants with copper rivets to create “waist overalls” (what we call pants, not overalls), receiving patent #139121.

            Although Levi Strauss never wore his own creation, plenty of others did: goldminers hoping to fill the sturdy pockets with gold nuggets, people working in other industries, and later, hippies, students, and everybody else.  The pants became the unofficial costume for men (and some women) in the Summer of Love.  Painter Georgia O’Keefe labeled them “the costume of this country.”  And everywhere else: Levi’s are now sold in 110 countries.  During the Cold War, they—along with jazz recordings—were treasured contraband from outside the Iron Curtain.

            It wasn’t until 1834 that the company designed Levi’s for women—although, of course, women had been wearing the denim jeans for decades.  Side note: the words “denim” and “jeans” derive from the names of two towns: Nimes, and Genoa.  (Although Etymology.com claims that “jeans” is derived from the French Jean fustian—but don’t ask me to explain either etymology.)

            The story of Levi’s is a large part of the story of San Francisco, and a large copy of a panoramic photo of the city by pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge (yes, that’s the correct spelling) is among the exhibits.  Names of landmarks and major streets have been added.  The company headquarters, of course, are in San Francisco.

            But back to those pants.  The red tab on the right rear pocket was created in 1936, to distinguish the genuine article from the by then countless imitators.  Eventually, jeans for women—called “Freedom-Alls,” were developed, as well as pants for babies and children—with the slogan “Koveralls Keep Kids Klean.”  There was a special line for the handicapped, although an example of these, unlike the women’s and kids’ versions, are not represented in the show.  But there’s an American Motors Gremlin car with denim upholstery.  Also, bicycle pants—for the newly popular turn-of-the-century fad of bicycle-riding.

            During the hippie era, jeans were frequently customized with patches of other fabrics, embroidery, and whatever else creative minds could come up with.  More recently, pop stars have devised their own variations: the show features photos of Beyonce, Madonna, Andy Warhol, Spike Lee, Patti Smith, and Bruce Springsteen in their unique creations.

And Levi Strauss of course came up with variations of its own: rodeo wear (there’s a splendid purple satin shirt on display), and jackets, both in denim and other materials.  Albert Einstein sports a leather Levi’s jacket in one photograph.  And the company began investing in its community, supporting the LGBTQ community and the Jewish community, among others.  Keith Haring designed a customized pair of jeans for a benefit for the gay community.

The show concludes with clips from the dozens of movies that have featured Levi’s-wearing actors: “Thelma and Louise,” “Wayne’s World,” “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Reality Bites,” and—course—“The Misfits” and “The Wild One.”  The cowboy, after all, was Levi Strauss’s symbol.

As painter Georgia O’Keefe said, “Blue jeans are the costume of this country.”

Can you imagine modern man, woman, and child, both here and abroad, without his or her Levi’s?         

I think I’ll put on my new tight-fitting black pair right now.

San Francisco ,
Renata Polt, a freelance writer and critic, is the translator and editor of A Thousand Kisses: A Grandmother's Holocaust Letters.