Vintage Jeans are the Best Jeans

They are more than just old pants.

The vintage, worn out denim is a strong cultural symbol with close association to hard workers, young people, and free expression.  Every sign of wear, every inch of stitching on classic denim clothes make them iconic.  Every wardrobe should have at least one pair of vintage denim jeans.

Vintage clothing is a generic term for garments originating from a previous era.  

Generally speaking, clothing which was produced before the 1920s is referred to as antique clothing and clothing from the 1920s to 20 years before the present day is considered vintage.

Before the "Great Recession," premium denim was one of the fastest growing categories of the apparel business, and there seemed to be no limit to what customers would pay for the latest label, fit, finish, or wash.  In addition to designer brands, consumers frequently pay top dollar for authentic rare jeans.  Vintage clothing can be considered collectible which means some vintage denim pants have value.  In fact, some pants have significant value. 

Vintage Levi's - read the History of Women's Levi Jeans.

Popular vintage jeans brands include: Levi's, Lee, and Wrangler.

Levi's - Levi Strauss & Co. is a privately owned American clothing company known worldwide for its Levi's brand of denim jeans.  It was founded in May 1853.  Jacob Davis, a Latvian Jewish immigrant, was a Reno, Nevada tailor who frequently purchased bolts of cloth made from denim from Levi Strauss & Co.'s wholesale house. After one of Davis' customers kept purchasing cloth to reinforce torn pants, he had an idea to use copper rivets to reinforce the points of strain, such as on the pocket corners and at the base of the button fly.  Davis did not have the required money to purchase a patent, so he wrote to Strauss suggesting that they go into business together. After Levi accepted Jacob's offer, on May 20, 1873, the two men received U.S. Patent 139,121 from the United States Patent and Trademark Office.  The pants - called “waist overalls" - have one back pocket with the Arcuate stitching design, a watch pocket, a cinch, suspender buttons and a rivet in the crotch.

Levi Patent Riveted Clothing

  • Created before the invention of the zipper, the signature button fly is a key detail which defines the 501 Jean.  The perfect union of function and style.

  • The Levi Strauss & Co. Archives has two pairs of jeans from the late 1870s or early 1880s, likely the oldest ones in existence. They are called “XX" – the name of the first denim used to make them, which was the best denim in the U.S.  It came from the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company in Manchester, New Hampshire.  It was so famous Levi decided to name the pants after them.  The pants were made of 9 oz. XX blue denim, from the Amoskeag Mill.  Levi Strauss used a harder woven denim that would be far more resistant to ripping and durable at the weaker points by installing the famous Patented metal Rivet.

  • Vintage jeans are a hot item among die-hard fashionistas, and Levi's Big E jeans are sought-after pieces by collectors. "Big E" refers to the capital letter "E" on the jeans' red tag. The uppercase letter indicates that the jeans were made previous to 1971, before the company changed to the lowercase letter (see the little e red tab). Wearing vintage Levi's Big E jeans is all about creating a unique style, but also allows you to own a piece of American history.

  • In 1886, The Two Horse brand leather patch is first used on the waist overalls. Its purpose was to demonstrate the strength of the pants and reinforce our status as the originator of patent riveted clothing. The iconic Two Horse patch stitched on to the back of every pair of 501® Jeans illustrates the original promise made by Levi Strauss: “It’s no use, they can’t be ripped" and celebrates the strength and quality of the riveted denim (oh, yes, jeans can be ripped...)

  • In 1890, Strauss and Davis refined the style and called it lot 501, a name that has stayed for more than a century.

    Circa 1890, the rivet patent goes into the public domain.  At this point in time Levi Strauss & Co. is no longer the exclusive manufacturer of riveted clothing.  Around this time, Levi moves from "XX" to a lot number system to help identify the jeans.  Lot numbers are first assigned to the products being manufactured. 501 is used to designate the famous copper-riveted waist overalls. Unfortunately, the Levi's company does records do not show why this number was chosen (they lost historical records in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fires that followed).  In the years around 1890 they also made a 201 jean, which was a less expensive version of the pants, as well as other products using other three-digit numbers. Because of the loss of their records in 1906, the reasons for many of these changes are unknown.

  • Approximately 1901, "Waist Overalls" became known simply as "overalls".  The company added a second back pocket (no, not for iPhones).

  • Circa 1910, Sometime during this decade the jeans are sewn with a felled inseam. Prior to this time the inseam was “mock" felled.

  • In 1922, belt loops are added to the overalls, but the suspender buttons are still retained. The cinch is also still used on the pants, but some men cut if off in order to wear the overalls with a belt.

  • Circa 1927, Cone Mills develops the 10 oz. red selvage denim exclusively for the 501® jeans. The denim is woven in 29" wide looms.

    • 1936 to 1947 The famous Levi's red tag made its first appearance in 1936, giving future jeans collectors an easy way to identify and date their finds. The red Tab is first placed onto the right back pocket of the overalls. The word “Levi’s is stitched in white in all capital letters on one side only. The Tab is created to differentiate Levi’s® overalls from the many competitors in the marketplace who were using dark denim and an Arcuate stitch. The original tag from 1936 had all capital letters on the front of the tag only. Vintage collectors look for the capital "E" as a sign of an older pair of jeans. Looking on the inside of the jeans at the rivets also tells the story of their age. During these years, rivets in seat pockets were concealed from the outside and only visible on the jeans' inner surface. 

    • During World War II the U.S. government told the company that it could not stitch its “Arcuate" back pocket design on the 501® jeans, because it was decorative and not a functional use of thread, an essential item for the war effort. So, LS&CO. painted the Arcuate stitching on the pockets of the 501® (men’s) and 701® (women’s) jeans “For The Duration" of the war.  Learn more about the arcuate stitching.

    • 1947 to 1955 Levi's jeans evolved to their classic form with five pockets, red tabs, belt loops, and fitted legs in the post-war era. Their narrower profile made them distinctive and stylish as casual wear. Early 1950s The word LEVI’S is now stitched on both sides of the red Tab. We are not sure why this was done.

    • 1955 to 1967 Levi's 501s kept their overall silhouette largely the same throughout the 1950s, but zippers appeared in stores alongside button-fly versions. The Levi's name appeared on both sides of the red tag but still had all capital letters. Bar tacks replaced the hidden rivets on the back pockets; until 1966, they were made of copper and had raised lettering. Once made of leather, the patch on jeans produced after 1955 was a durable facsimile instead.
    • From the early 1960s through the mid-1970s, Levi Strauss experienced significant growth in its business as the more casual look of the 1960s and 1970s ushered in the "blue jeans craze" and served as a catalyst for the brand.

    • 1967 to 1971 Until 1967, all 501s were shrink-to-fit, but the company introduced pre-shrunk jeans that year. Lower legs were wider, a nod to the bell-bottomed fashions of the era, and had lower waists than the 1950s and early 1960s models.
    • 1971 to 1980 In 1971, the big "E" red tag got a redesign and became the lowercase letter familiar to modern buyers. This logo change is one of the most reliable for dating vintage pairs of 501 jeans. The 1970s also introduced care tags in the jeans; before this year, tags were on the outside and had to be removed by the consumer. Prior to 1980, the jeans still had a free selvage, but a stitched selvage marked the jeans as a newer style or a reproduction.
    • Learn more about explore Levi.

  • Learn about the The 501® Jean: Stories of an Original | Full Documentary (Youtube)

  • History of the Levi's 501 Jeans.

  • Levi's has been worn by people from all walks of life, from miners to Nobel Prize recipients including Albert Einstein himself, whose famous leather jacket was made by Levi Strauss & Co in the 30's and has been sold at auction house Christies for £110,500

  • Visit the Levi's website.

Lee - Lee is an American brand of denim jeans, first produced in 1889 in Salina, Kansas.  The company was formed in 1889 by Henry David Lee as the Lee Mercantile Company at Salina, Kansas producing dungarees and jackets. The growth of Lee was prompted by the introduction of the Union-All work jumpsuit in 1913 and their first overall in 1920.  Later in the 1920s Lee introduced a zipper fly and continued to expand. Around this time, the first children's overall line was sold. In 1928 H.D. Lee, founder and president of The H.D. Lee Mercantile Company, died.  During the 1930s and 1940s the company became the leading manufacturer of work clothes in the US. In 1944, the Lazy "S" became the official Lee back pocket.  The classic look and feel of Lee denim is hard to deny.  Vintage Lee brand apparel, including jeans, jackets, and even shirts, fit into any fashionistas wardrobe.

Wrangler - Wrangler is an American manufacturer of jeans and other clothing items, particularly workwear.   Wrangler Jeans were first made by Blue Bell, who acquired the brand when they took over Casey Jones in the mid-1940s. Blue Bell employed Bernard Lichtenstein ('Rodeo Ben'), a Polish tailor from Łódź who worked closely with cowboys, to help design jeans suitable for rodeo use. This was the origin of Wrangler Jeans. The 13MWZ style, introduced in 1947 as lot number 11MWZ, is still available worldwide.

You may also want to learn about Jordache, Gloria Vanderbilt, and Calvin Klein.

  • What is the difference between retro fashion and vintage fashion?

  • What is the difference between vintage clothes and used clothes?

  • How to identify rare jeans?

  • Some of the above questions can be answered on our Vintage clothing page.

Where to buy vintage jeans? Vintage denim clothing can be previously worn or never worn fashion from a previous ear.  It is very possible to find this type of clothing in thrift stores, garage sales, or high end fashion boutiques.  Popular places to buy vintage pant styles include charity-run second hand clothing shops, consignment shops, yard sales, flea markets, antique stores, estate sales, auctions, and vintage clothing shops.  Vintage clothing shops are often found in trendy or artsy neighborhoods of cities.  You can search for vintage clothing stores in the Apparel Search retail directory.  If you are looking for a delicious pair of vintage jeans visit boutiques, garage sales, flea markets, and other shopping opportunities.

The popularity of the internet and growth in online shopping for clothes has provided a great boost to the vintage clothing industry.  It has increased the availability of specific and previously hard to find items.  Online market places such as eBay, Etsy, and Craigslist are also helpful tools for enthusiasts of vintage apparel & accessories.  Most brick & mortar clothing shops with physical locations now also sell their goods online.

Can wearing vintage clothing save the planet?

It may not save the planet but it certainly can’t hurt.  Wearing vintage clothes is essentially a method of recycling apparel.

Learn more about vintage fashion in our fashion terms section. 

You should probably read a bit more about jean jackets and jean shorts.  They are important to the vintage apparel market as well.

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