Who can forget those 1990’s Levi’s commercials – marketing sex appeal, celebrity fashion, romance and rock ‘n’ roll style! Instilling marketing slogans like “Originals stand the test of time” and “The more you wash them the better they get,” Levi’s jeans are an iconic image of American culture and style. Today, Levi’s signature button down jeans are worn internationally by men and woman of all ages. Levi’s brand is over 160 years old and being trendy was the furthest thing designer Levi Strauss had in mind.
Strauss, immigrant from Bavaria, opened a San Francisco whole sale business, and heavy duty work pants were one the most popular items sold. The poster “The Birth of the Blues” illustrates the story of how the original “Shrink-to-Fit” jeans were born with a marketing focus during the San Francisco gold rush era. The poster composition includes the header “The Birth of Blues: or how the original Shrink-to-Fit jean was born-& all that Jazz.” In the center is an illustration of the famous blue jeans and around it are photographs and captions that begin with “Here is…” to be read left to right.
The first tidbit on the poster is about the designer, Levi Strauss, “who in 1850 made the first jeans (pants of Levi’s) from tough canvas tenting. He dyed them indigo blue. Gave them a button fly.” Next is about the client: city slicker men turned fortune seekers during the Gold rush in California. With a photograph of two gold miners posing in front of the camera, the caption below reads, “Here are Levi’s first customers –San Francisco gold miners who needed tough work pants like they needed a hot bath after a month in the diggings.”
The third photo is a picture of Alkali Ike, “a miner whose pockets kept ripping under the strain of ‘nuggets bigger’n than your thumb.” The poster explains how Strauss’s unique design was able to solve this problem by adding cooper riveted pockets for long-lasting durability. To illustrate just how strong the jeans were, a drawing of two horses pulling on a single pair of jeans in opposite directions is depicted on the left edge of the poster. According to the caption below the illustration, Strauss did an “incredible torture test… devised to show just how tough the original shrink-to-fit blue jeans with cooper riveted pockets really were. Wild horses couldn’t tear them apart.”
The last two factoids include product accessories such as the leather patch that is on the right hip of every pair of original shrink to fit blue jeans. Along with the image of the two horses pulling on a pair of Levi’s jeans, the patch highlights the patent date of May 20 1873, and the words “quality clothing.” On the far right side of the poster is a convenient fitting guide and chart, in case any potential customers browsing the poster are curious about finding their “perfect fit in original Blue Levi’s.” At the bottom of the poster is a smaller banner reinforcing the words “original, Shrink-to-Fit, blue jeans” and finally, the famous back-pocket signifier: the bow-shaped red tab “Levi’s.”
It is unlikely that Strauss could have imagined that his hard-wearing but comfortable garment would remain largely unchanged 160 years later. Furthermore, he would probably be surprised to learn that his “blues,” which were made for practicality and durability, would grow up to be synonymous with “cool.” If only Levi Strauss were alive today, he would see that his brand was able to transcend the gold mines of California and become one of the most commercialized products and iconic symbols of American fashion.