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Levi’s Red Tab Turns 85

As the secondhand apparel market continues to gain traction, more and more denim heads and thrifting enthusiasts are scouring stores for old treasures. And for Levi’s, the vintage boom is arriving at just the right time: On Sept. 1, the brand celebrated the 85th anniversary of its Red Tab, a branding element that has become an indicator of when the jean was made. To mark the day, the company shared a timeline of the label’s evolution.

Levi’s introduced the Red Tab in 1936, 63 years after the blue jean was first invented. It was developed by Levi’s national sales manager Chris Lucier to help differentiate authentic Levi’s from copycats in the riveted pants space, with a bright red marking positioned on the jeans’ back pocket. From then on, the marking was stitched into 501s and the tagline “Look for the Red Tab” was often included in advertisements during the 1940s and 1950s.

Following its debut, it was included in other products such as jackets, and white, orange, black and silver variations were introduced to indicate different product lines and promotions. For the 1984 Summer Games, gold medalists received a custom 501 jean featuring a Red Tab with gold letters, and for the brand’s more recent Pride products, it added a rainbow tab.

In 1971, Levi’s rebranded its Red Tab to feature title casing in place of all caps. However, the only letter that was noticeably changed was the E, which is now a determining factor in the age of a pair of Levi’s. Referred to as the “big E,” the original Red Tab products are now collectors’ items that hold sentimental and monetary value for denim aficionados.

To celebrate last year’s 501 day—the day jeans were first created—the brand released a limited-edition Levi’s Vintage Clothing 1971 “Golden Ticket” 501 Jean that paid homage to the original branding and gave collectors a chance to own a big E product. The collection featured jeans made of 12-ounce Cone Mills White Oak red selvedge denim that retailed for $500 and included a Levi’s Red Tab covered in gold foil. Out of the 501 pairs of jeans produced for the campaign, only five included a big E Red Tab.

Beginning in 2018, the big E Red Tab was reintroduced to designate Levi’s premium products. To separate the new from the old, denim heads can look for care tags, as those would not have been included in garments before the year 1971.

Today, 10 percent of Levi’s garments feature tabs that include nothing more than a registered trademark symbol—the only exception being Levi’s Vintage Clothing—in order to preserve the use of its Red Tab.