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.