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Levi’s Designer Shares Key Characteristics of Historic 501 Jeans

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Each pair of jeans tells a story. And in the case of the Levi’s 501—the first-ever pair of jeans—that story goes back 147 years.

On Wednesday, heritage denim brand Levi’s celebrated 501 Day—the day Levi’s received a patent for the first-ever riveted pants—with a series of musical performances and educational talks on Instagram Live. In one presentation, Paul O’Neill, Levi’s Vintage Clothing head designer, walked viewers through the evolution of the original jeans’ style.

First up was a pair of 501 jeans from 1890, the year Levi’s assigned the 501 lot number to the original style. The pair featured just one back pocket with exposed rivets for reinforcement. Long before jeans were a fashion staple, they were a workwear garment designed to withstand the test of time, and rivets helped keep the pockets intact so workers could continue using them to hold their tools.

The historic pair also featured suspender buttons and a cinch buckle along the waist to keep jeans secure. Originally known as “waist overalls,” jeans were held up by suspenders and lacked belt loops.

Next up was a pair of 501 jeans from 1944, featuring a second back pocket and belt loops, which were added in 1901 and 1922, respectively.

As materials such as thread, fabric and metal were strictly rationed during World War II, many of the Levi’s 501 jeans from that period showed inconsistencies. Some were missing rivets, others included various pocketing fabrics such as plaid and military stock, and the arch design that was formerly stitched onto Levi’s back pockets was painted on instead.

Another defining characteristic of the time was the famous Levi’s red tab, which was added in 1936 and featured the brand name in all caps. Referred to as the “big E,” the branding changed to title case in 1971. Big E Levi’s are now collectors’ items that hold sentimental and monetary value for denim heads.

To celebrate 501 day, Levi’s is releasing a limited-edition Levi’s Vintage Clothing 1971 “Golden Ticket” 501 Jean that will give collectors a chance to own a big E jean.

The jeans feature both versions of the Levi’s classic red tab, covered in gold foil. Out of the 501 pairs of jeans produced, only five will have a big “E” red tab. Jeans are made of 12-ounce Cone Mills White Oak red selvedge denim and retail for $500 on Levi.com.

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