From Brando to Woodstock

Early in the 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause, a single frame helps set the stage for what would become the next 65 years of casual fashion. Jim Stark, played by James Dean, is confronted by a crew of juvenile delinquents at his new high school. All around, students are dressed in letterman sweaters and poodle skirts—standard 1950s fair. But the kids, the “Wheels” as they are called, are wearing blue jeans. Cinematically, it is a visual cue that Nicholas Ray, the film’s director, used to separate the cool kids from the squares. On one side, gabardine. On the other, selvedge denim.

That blue jeans, and specifically the Levi’s® 501®, had become a uniform for the teenage rebel was in large part a Hollywood creation. By the 1940s, it wasn’t at all uncommon for young people—both rebellious and non—to wear what were then known as denim overalls. That changed, however, in 1953 with the release of The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando. Playing Johnny Strabler, leader of the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club, Brando catapulted the look of Levi’s® 501® jeans, boots, and black leather motorcycle jacket into the pop cultural consciousness. His 1947 Levi’s® 501®s were a direct inspiration for the costumes of Rebel Without a Cause, which opened the floodgates for Levi’s® jeans as the new uniform of cool.

As the ‘50s gave way to the ‘60s, the Levi’s® 501® was embraced by all manner of counter cultural figures. Bikers, rock ’n’ roll musicans and doo-wop crooners , Beat poets, Greenwich Village artists. If you needed something to look cool in, the 501® was it. In the U.K. the 501® had also became a staple for Rockers, a youthful biker subculture—also known as Ton Up Boys—that drew heavy inspiration from Brando’s Johnny Strabler, and would go on to influence the punks and the Teddy Boys of the following era. Even movie stars beyond Brando became fans of the 501®. Marilyn Monroe, in a now famous photo, proudly displayed the iconic arcuate stitching on the back pockets of her 501®s.

During the 1960s, denim, especially the Levi’s® 501®, also featured heavily in the Civil Rights movement, as well as protests around the Vietnam war, women’s rights, and gay and LGBTQ rights. It was the mix of the 501®s aura of rebellion as well as it’s blue collar roots that helped make it a staple among Civil Rights organizers and activists throughout the decade. Civil Rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr., regularly donned denim to show solidarity with blue collar workers and the working class. Importantly, the 501® was embraced by both men and women activists during this era, making it an important symbol of equality between the sexes, as well as a practical garment for long days of organizing. In fact, denim became so ubiquitous among both male and female members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), that it was eventually viewed as an essential part of the group’s uniform.

By the late 1960s, Levi’s® was both influenced by and influencing culture. As young people roundly embraced the 501®, the company began specifically targeting youth in its marketing, primarily through radio and music. In 1967, Levi’s® teamed up with soon-to-be iconic concert promoter Bill Graham, who hired an underground San Francisco band called Jefferson Airplane to record a series of tracks at The Fillmore that mentioned Levi’s® in the lyrics. The tracks would then be played on the radio to stir up buzz for Levi’s® jeans. To call this move prescient would be an understatement. By the time the tracks released, Jefferson Airplane was one of the hottest bands in the country, and the denizens of the San Francisco music scene, often clad in Levi’s®, were firmly behind the wheel of the zeitgeist.

This era of the Levi’s® 501® was a much softer, much more well-worn one. “The ‘50s was a more dressed-up, clean look. Even with denim,” says Paul O’Neill, Head Designer for Levi’s® Vintage Clothing at Levi Strauss & Co. “Dark jeans, starched white tee. By the time you get to the ‘60s, things get toned down. Scruffier, worn out jeans, striped tees.” And, importantly, as O’Neill points out, this is the era where the modern approach to casual wear was established. “It was the first time where people are looking like they look today. Since then, only the silhouette has really changed.” A pair of beat-up 501®s and a T-shirt is about as standard a modern uniform as you can get. Whether it’s 1969, 1989, or today.

In regard to the modern lineage of the Levi’s® 501®, the late ‘60s is also when customization became king. In some respects, the 501® had always been a blank canvas, but more in terms of how they were worn, and what they were worn with. With the dawn of the Summer of Love and hippie style, it suddenly became about what you did to them. Dyed and bleached 501®s, cropped or cut-off 501®s, 501®s painted with peace signs and counterculture catchphrases—in one famous Life magazine photo from Woodstock in 1969, a man has a yellow owl painted across the front of his 501®s. And, perhaps most recognizable from that era, is the 501® with the hems cut and patches sewn in, a.k.a,, the “bell bottom.” Sometimes this was done at home, and sometimes it was done at shops like Mnasidika on Haight and Ashbury in San Francisco, who catered to Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. The bell bottom became the defining silhouette of that era.

Today there are so many avenues to making the Levi’s® 501® your own that it’s hard to imagine a time when they were primarily for factory workers and tradespeople. But if there’s one thing that the ’50s and ’60s illustrated clearly, it’s that the 501® is a constant. Fashions may change around it, and the way it is worn may change—raw or faded, fitted or oversized—but the 501® itself never changes. Straight leg, Red Tab, button fly, it’s the heart and soul of Levi’s®, and, since the days of young Marlon Brando, of American style.