Produced by: Dan Hwang
Levi’s is a name synonymous with American grit. As a company with experience reaching back to the 1850s, the company prides itself on items crafted to last. In today’s Americana-flooded marketplace, it seems as if a new boutique denim brand aiming to produce “authentic” denim pops up every month or so, but each of those brands owes a debt to the originators. With a history as rich as that of Levi Strauss & Co., a need arose for a proper Archive, which emerged in 1989 at the appropriately-named Levi’s plaza in San Francisco. A recent addition to the archive is a pair of “New Nevada” jeans that dates back to the 1880s was discovered in excellent condition somewhere near a Nevada mining town.
Many of our readers wouldn’t picture this pair as their next pickup because the function of the “waist overalls,” as they were first called, was strictly utilitarian. These trousers were designed as a pant that could take a beat down in the mines. The fact that this pair has emerged in this well-preserved condition speaks volumes to the durability that made the brand internationally famous.
On the occasion of this historic discovery, we got a chance to chat with Levi’s historian Tracey Panek. As the manager of the Archives, she has spent time learning about the details that make the unearthing of this particular pair so important. During our chat, we got the inside scoop on a pair of denim that reminds us that jeans weren’t always conceived of as the lynchpin of a fresh outfit--they began as uniquely-constructed pants that a man could work in for years. We also leaned a bit about the making of denim material and what designers have scoured the Archives thus far. Click through to get a look at “New Nevada” jeans and read our detailed interview.
Tracey Panek, Levi Strauss & Co.Historian
Freshness: For our readers who may just think of jeans as a fashion item, what can you tell them about the way denim trousers were worn back in the 1880s?
Tracey: Our waist overalls, the name we gave the first blue jeans, were a functional work pant. They were a wide, full cut and were intended to be worn over pants or long underwear. They could be worn with or without suspenders. The cinch on the back of the pants could be tightened for fit.
Some of the construction details on these "New Nevada" jeans will look strange to our readers. Can you explain the history of elements like the center patch, the button construction, and the single pocket?
The style of the pants is very simple, and we believe they were considered a very basic man’s work garment. The cut is different from our 501® jeans: the yoke is narrower, the leather patch is in the middle of the waistband and not on the right hand side, the buttons are the sew-on type, and not the shank style, and there is a “rule” (ruler) pocket on the left thigh. There is only one back pocket, which is typical of the period; we did not put a second back pocket on our 501® jeans until 1901, for example. In addition, the pocket bags are made of denim, and not traditional pocketing material.
With so much focus on heritage and items that carry a story in today's marketplace, how do these jeans help advance the Levi's narrative?
The New Nevada jeans authenticate our role as the originator of the blue jean and today’s leading denim brand. The amazing “near new” of the pant highlights the quality and durability that has been a hallmark of our products from the beginning. The New Nevada will become a source of research and inspiration for designers seeking new and innovative ideas for future products.
Can you tell our readers the story of how denim is made and sourced today?
Denim is made of cotton dyed with indigo. Today’s denim often utilizes synthetic indigo, which was discovered and put into use sometime after the New Nevada was made. Although we currently source denim from a variety of places, in 2015 we are celebrating100 years of partnering with Cone Mills (Greensboro, North Carolina). We continue to use Cone Denim for some of our products.
Where was the denim made and sourced for this "New Nevada" pair?
The denim for the New Nevada was purchased by Levi Strauss & Co. from the Amoskeag Mill, which was located in the town of Manchester in the state of New Hampshire. The denim is dyed with vegetable (plant) indigo. The denim is not the “red selvage” denim we associate with our early products. Red selvage denim was created for us by Cone Mills in the 1920s.
Where was this pair found and how was it excavated?
Our information is limited. We know that the pants were found near a Nevada mining town.
How does the company use finds like these in crafting items for today's consumer?
Pieces like the New Nevada became inspiration for future products. Designers will take anything from the button, stitching, or even the label from a vintage garment and use it to create some exciting new piece or fresh designs.
Not many companies have archives with clothing items that go back anywhere near as far as yours. Can you explain some of the details about the Levi's archives?
Founded in 1989, the Levi Strauss & Co. Archives maintain the world’s best collection of Levi’s® vintage clothing as well as photographs, marketing pieces, artifacts and documents. It is located at Levi’s® Plaza in San Francisco. The collection ranges from the world’s oldest blue jeans to denim jackets designed or decorated by on Elton John, Paloma Picasso, Yves St. LS&Co. Designers are the primary users of the Archives.