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The unlikely history of Levi’s jeans – or, how clothing styles from 150 years ago are somehow still fashionable today

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History of Levi's - About Levi Strauss and his denim jeans company

The history of Levi’s durable denims (from 1977)

Levi Strauss has built its success on a fad that has not faded

by Richard D James – Adapted from an article published in The Emporia Gazette (Emporia, Kansas) February 9, 1977

SAN FRANCISCO — Here’s an unlikely formula for business success: Pick an industry — say, apparel manufacturing — where trends fluctuate widely and unpredictably. Manufacture a garment — pants would be best out of a common fabric such as denim. Dye the pants an ordinary color, but preferably dark blue, and make sure they fade, shrink and wrinkle. Rivet on the pockets. Finally, don’t alter that basic style, no matter how drastically tastes change.

In a hundred years or so, the pants will have become so popular and famous that:

— A sample of them will hang on display in the Smithsonian Institution.

— Trucks carrying them in the U.S. will be prime hijack targets.

— Their brand name will be listed in most dictionaries.

— The company will be a billion-dollar giant.

In a nutshell, that’s the story of Levi Strauss & Co., the nation’s largest apparel maker and producer of Levi’s (“Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary” calls them “close-fitting heavy blue denim pants reinforced at strain points with copper rivets”).

As the originator of what has become a symbol of American culture, the company is enjoying almost unparalleled success. It is racking up record results at a time when the apparel industry is performing sluggishly at best. Its brand name is recognized nearly worldwide. Jeans are still its mainstay, but it has successfully expanded into shirts, jackets, boys’ and women’s clothing, and, most recently, shoes.

Mar 1970 Levi's fashion clothing

The company maintains such good rapport with customers that they tend to regard it almost affectionately. In 1973, for instance, on the 100th anniversary of its patent for the use of rivets on its pants, the company received hundreds of letters and cards from customers around the world wishing it a “Happy Patent Day.”

Its blue jeans are so durable and ubiquitous that it has been said — not entirely facetiously — when future archaeologists sift through the ruins of our civilization, they will find a pair of Levi’s. Some years ago, as workers were moving a Sacramento, California, cemetery to construct a shopping center, they found one grave dated 1871 that — to quote a local news report at the time — “contained the remains of an old-timer dressed in Levi’s — and although the coffin hadn’t weathered the passing years, the Levi’s were still in fair condition.”

Ironically, the company’s success occasions some nervousness among investors. Indeed, company officials have come to expect regular predictions that blue jeans are a fad sure to disappear any day. The executives point to a record that hardly bespeaks a fad.

Since World War II, sales have risen every year except one, and they have doubled every four to five years. For the past 15 years, profits have risen every year except two, and the company now typically earns as much in one quarter as it did in an entire year as recently as 1972. Analysts estimate that Levi Strauss has 30% of the basic Jeans market in the U.S.

The company traces its origin to California Gold Rush days when Levi Strauss, a 20-year-old Bavarian immigrant, began making pants by accident. Drawn West from New York in 1850 by the gold fever, he arrived in San Francisco with a stock of dry goods, including canvas for tents and wagon covers.

As it turned out, the miners wanted neither. “You should’ve brought pants,” an old prospector is alleged to have advised Mr. Strauss. “Pants don’t wear worth a hoot up in the diggin’s. Can’t get a pair strong enough to last.” So the canvas was converted into pants — the first Levi’s.

Although the reason is unclear, Strauss disliked the term “jeans” and called his “pants waist overalls” (as opposed to bib overalls). Not until the late 1920s, well after his death in 1902, did the company begin using the word “jeans.” [Editor’s note: We found a brief mention from October 1925 that said, “‘Levi’s’ or ‘jeans’ first were manufactured in San Francisco in 1850.”]

Antique Levi's memorabilia


The history of the Levi Strauss company: An old California firm (from 1946)

‘Levi’s’ a ‘must’ in wardrobe of many west coast residents

By Frank N Jones Santa Cruz Sentinel (Santa Cruz, California) August 9, 1946

Despite millions annually spent for advertising, few if any business firms in this country have captured a place in the minds of Americans like Levi Strauss and company, as their product not only is a household word — the name alone has come to mean a piece of clothing absolutely de rigeur to Americans of the west today.

Any person living in these western United States who has not worn a pair of “Levi’s” at one time or another must either be in an institution or an old-fashioned sissy. The waist-high blue denim jeans have been an integral part of California’s history ever since Civil war days and now girls are vying with cowboys to secure a pair, as they have been a scarce item of late years.

The Levi Strauss firm is now in its 96th year, and contrary to what some people think, it was not started by two men — Levi Strauss was the name of one adventurous young man who went to San Francisco from New York and started a store in 1850.

Levi Strauss - The man - The myth - The legend

It is not hard to imagine young Strauss as having a little more between his ears commercially than most of the gold miners, as he came well supplied with precious merchandise which he was able to sell almost before he got off the ship in the Golden Gate.

During those gold rush days, his biggest problem was to find positive means of securing contact with two of his financial backers — two brothers back in New York. This was done with the aid of a ship’s captain, and after a trip to the gold fields to ascertain what the clothing needs of the miners were, the young merchant began ordering.

The next few years were largely a repetition of his first success, and when overhead traders began to come through to the coast, a steady stock of dry goods were assured for the Strauss store.

One of the features of Levi jeans which have since been copied by most competitors since the patents ran out is their copper-riveted pocket reinforcements. This unique method of putting a pocket on a garment “for keeps” is credited to a Virginia City, Nevada, tailor who became a partner of Strauss.

The tailor’s name was Jacob W. Davis, and legend has it that he got tired of sewing on pockets for a character of the goldfields named “Alkali Ike.” It seems Alkali had the then common habit of carrying about large sums of heavy gold nuggets in his jeans. Every few days, he would go to Tailor Davis to get another sewing job. Each time his colorful and forceful vocabulary would take Davis to task for not being able to solve the problem.

In desperation, Davis sneaked Ike’s pants out the back door to a harness shop and got copper rivets put around the pocket edges — thus the start of copper rivets in overall pockets. As a happy conclusion to this yarn, it is recorded that Davis finally became head of the Strauss factory.

Vintage Levi Strauss ads
Left: Levi’s notice and marketing materials from the 1800s / Right: Levi’s ad from 1922

The history of Levi’s: After Strauss

Levi Strauss died in 1902 at the age of 70, leaving his firm to four nephews. Now all the nephews are dead, and the president is Walter A. Haas, San Francisco civic leader and former head of a grocery business. Daniel E. Koshland is vice president. The main branch of the company is at Battery and Pine streets, San Francisco, and there is a factory in San Jose, and, in April, 1944, one was established at Santa Cruz.

Present manager of the Santa Cruz and San Jose plants is Stephen B. Netherby… a friendly, curly-headed young man who does not seem old enough to have the worries of two factories, explained how Levi Strauss makes its famous product.

The only product made at this [Santa Cruz] plant is overalls, although the firm handles many different items ranging from mattresses to sports clothing. The denim material for the Levi’s are especially made for the company by the Cone Export and Import company of Greensboro, North Carolina, and it arrives in Santa Cruz via rail in 800-pound bales.

Textile weave room - Greensboro NC 1909

The material is un-Sanforized so it will shrink. Originally this was because cowboys, one of their best customers, wanted their Levi’s to shrink tight about the seat and become form-fitting. Now, with women wearing them — Netherby just shrugs his shoulders and his voice dies down to a whisper when describing the situation.

Bolts of the denim are placed on long tables, three-dozen pairs high. There are two tables, each about 35 yards long, where the material is spread and a cutter, using a machine not unlike a jigsaw but with a different blade, cuts out the various pieces which, when assembled, are sewn into the finished product. When the material is cut it is trucked into another room where the sewing, riveting and finishing takes place. During the war years, not all rivets were copper due to scarcity.

The sewing room would be a delight to a mass production efficiency expert, as each chore is scientifically laid out. There are 30 separate operations used in making the Levi’s, and a girl does only one thing. Capacity of the Santa Cruz factory is 100 dozen pairs per day, or one pair every 30 seconds, but with the shortage of workers, it does not generally operate at full capacity, the superintendent stated.

Levi's Denim Family - vintage clothing ad from 1954


The history of Levi’s: Manufacturing photos (1946)

Below: Clothing Cutter Archie McNair runs a machine which goes along a table with a razor-sharp blade vibrating 3600 times per minute cutting out pieces of Levi Strauss overalls. The material is laid out three-dozen pairs high and after it is cut it is trucked to the sewing room to be stitched, finished, and have those famous copper rivets put on the pockets.

Levi's Clothing Cutter Archie McNair 1946

Below: Kitty Getzschmann, in another phase of making Levi’s at the Front street factory, operates a spreading machine which lays out the coarse cotton drilling, or denim, on a 90-foot table so stenciled markings may be followed by the cutter. She is one of 46 girls employed at the Santa Cruz branch of the pioneer clothing manufacturing company.

Levi's worker Kitty Getzschmann in 1946


Beginning of American denim is surprising: A brief history of Levi’s from 1961

By Florence De Santis – Monroe News-Star (Louisiana) July 26, 1961

It may be a little deflating to learn that the most American of fabrics, denim, came from France originally, but such is the case. Good old denim once went by the fancy name of “serge de Nimes,” after the city where it was born. Just how old denim is, is uncertain, but by 1695, it was common in European commerce. Then, as now, it was used for work clothes.

Even the term “blue jeans” isn’t American. Pants made in Italy of serge de Nimes were called “jeans” after the common French name Jean. Serge de Nimes became “denim” when Levi Strauss imported it into California during the 1849 gold rush. The “serge” was dropped, and “de Nimes,” Anglicized and run together, became denim.

But Strauss did add a really American word to the denim vocabulary: The rugged work pants he made became known as “Levi’s.” By the 1860s, New York fabrics wholesalers were carrying as many as ten kinds of denim, still largely imported.

Not until 1896, in Greensboro, North Carolina, was a large American denim mill set up. The location was natural, for the South was then mostly agricultural and poor. Probably most adults wore nothing but cheap and sturdy denim. A suit made from it could cost about two dollars.

Considering denim’s spread into railroading and industry, it is likely that more of this cloth than any other has clothed America in the last century. But it remained for our more prosperous times to turn it into a sportswear and fashion fabric, worn by women for leisure, as well as by men.

 


The history of Levi’s: He wore blue denim trousers…

It didn’t take Levi Strauss long after he arrived in San Francisco during the Gold Rush to realize that the real gold was in that roll of canvas under his arm. Soon, miners, cowboys and workmen all over the West were wearing Levi’s pants because they were tough.

A century later, almost everyone had a pair — not only because they were tough, but because they were comfortable, modish, suited to new, casual Western lifestyles, and the shapes of Western kids, and could be worn anywhere — well, almost anywhere.

By Lawrence Dietz – The Los Angeles Times (California) August 30, 1970

Gold and sex. Any American businessman would like to be able to capitalize on the public’s, ahem, interest in those two items (Raquel Welch playing Fred C. Dobbs in a remake of Treasure of Sierra Madre, perhaps). And, by God, one of the largest corporations in the country has.

If you study Fortune magazine’s list of 500 largest industrial firms, you can find it at number 363 (up from 399 last year). It had sales of $250.7 million, a net income of $14.5 million, and early in 1970 was in the peculiar position of having to discourage new accounts because its factories were working to capacity filling the orders of current customers. The name of this company is Levi Strauss, and in case you have spent your literate lifetime in a nudist camp, Levi Strauss makes pants.

The company was started in 1850 by a 20-year-old New Yorker named Levi Strauss, who had sailed around the Horn the year before to search for gold. He had carried with him on the ship rolls of fabric from his brothers’ clothing store, which he sold to other passengers in order to raise the proverbial grubstake. He sold all but one roll of heavy tent canvas.

When Strauss landed in San Francisco with his roll of canvas under his arm, he happened to run into a miner who was complaining that pants wore out quickly in the mining camps. Strauss obviously had the heart of a clothier, for he immediately took the miner to a local tailor and had the tailor make the man a pair of pants out of the heavy cloth. (What kind of a needle the tailor used to sew the canvas is a matter for speculation: an ice pick?)

Levi's jeans history 1970 (3)

The miner did what any modern ad manager prays for when the wishbone breaks right: he went roaring all over roaring old San Francisco showing off that great pair of pants “of Levi’s,” and Levi Strauss was in business. He made more pants from the original roll of cloth, and immediately sent back to his brothers for all the heavy duck and denim they could supply.

Now, all of this made Levi’s a success in the mining camps, but it might have been just another flash in the gold-mining pans save for the fact that Levi Strauss was a very smart man.

MORE  How the California Gold Rush of 1849 began, and what life was really like for the miners

First, he ordered that all the denim sent to him be dyed a distinctive indigo blue (hence the name “blue jeans”). More important, however, he listened to a tailor named Davis from Virginia City, Nevada.

Davis came to Strauss in the 1860s and told the funny story of a local miner whom history has recorded as “Alkali Ike”; Davis saw Ike quite frequently — that is, every time he had to sew the pockets of Ike’s Levi’s, which often ripped at the seams under the strain of jagged ore samples. When Davis found himself sewing the same pair of jeans for the umpteenth time, he took them to a local harness maker who reinforced the pockets with copper rivets.

Everyone got a big laugh out of this in Virginia City, but the biggest laugh belonged to Levi Strauss.

Strauss bought the idea from Davis, made Davis his production manager, and patented the idea. He then began making “copper riveted” Levi’s, a slogan which has appeared on a tag on the back of some 200 million pairs of Levi’s blue jeans which have been produced since. (The patent expired in 1908, after renewal, and every other manufacturer of anything that could pass as a work garment promptly put rivets on their clothes, without, however, knocking Levi Strauss out of its dominant position in “Western” clothing.)

Levi's jeans history 1970 (1)

Levi's jeans history 1970 (2)

The history of Levi’s from 1881 and on

Levi Strauss & Company did not only manufacture clothing, however. It also served as regional wholesaler for other brands of clothes and dry goods. It is interesting that this phase of the business contributed to what appears to have been the only serious crisis in the company.

In 1881, Jacob Stern, an officer in Levi’s New York office, wrote a letter to Levi Strauss in San Francisco, complaining that “our clothing trade is wasting away like a consumptive patient, and unless a strong remedy is administered it will soon peg out.”

“The best proof of the pudding is in the eating, and we can do this no better than in offering you figures… The year 1879 was a poor one, owing to the heavy failures in the city, in spring as you will recollect, and in 1880 when the total sales were $606,000 more than in 1879 the clothing sales were only $28,500 larger . . . The more we gain in total sales, the more we lose in clothing sales…

“It is a pity that after being in the clothing business so long that we should virtually be driven out of it, but there is no use in hiding the fact that such is going to be the case unless a change takes place . . . Another point not to be concealed is, that our clothing costs more to manufacture than that of other houses. . .

“The writer while admitting that he is the poorest clothing man in the house, from the fact of selling none, and not having the time to give it much attention, would nevertheless feel very sorry to see that we are compelled to retire in disgrace. Let us make another effort… Spare no expense in getting the best foremen, cutters, etc….

“We know that dry goods interfere to a certain extent with our clothing, for a great many men who have certain limits with us as regards credit, buy their limit in dry goods of us and clothing they get elsewhere…

“We do not want you to think that this letter is written to criticize you, it is merely to give our views. It was the same with our riveted goods — the sales were steadily decreasing all the time but you will notice that we are selling more than ever now — an extra five percent has done it in Oregon and New Mexico.”

Strauss died in 1902, leaving the business — which had finally been incorporated in 1890 — to four nephews, sons of his only sister. The business chugged along for the next 30 years or so with sales of Levi’s primarily restricted to the West — or, more to the point, to people working or playing outdoors.

Vintage Levi's company background info (1)

The company’s 1935 advertising campaign, for example, boasted of billboards on “every major highway in the West.” This included, for example, six billboards in Fresno, five in Modesto, three in Bakersfield, four in Brawley, three in Calexico, three in Watsonville, five in Stockton, four in Chicago and none in Los Angeles or San Francisco.

But in the same booklet, there was a quiet portent of the future. The New York Herald Tribune ran a feature piece in April, 1935, on dude ranches.

Underneath the very picturesque picture of one F. H. Larom, president of the Dude Ranchers Association, was a paragraph of the story which ran: “One of the advantages of a ranch vacation is that not many, if any, new clothes are required. Oldtimers advise the prospective dude rancher to bring his old clothes and buy in the West a pair of Levi overalls… Levi’s, or copper riveted, blue denim riding pants, have been found to be excellent…”

Old Levi's wall ad billboard

In the same issue of the paper — ah, coincidence! — the tony Fifth Avenue clothing store of Best & Co. took out an ad which read: “An old timer advises the dude ranch guest — ‘When you get your DUDE duds, suit yourself, ‘cept on one thing! BUY LEVI’S’ — and he’s right! Don’t take a chance on saddle comfort . . . get the same blue LEVIS riding jeans used by the Cowboy himself for over 70 YEARS! Also .. . ‘LADY LEVI’S’ for the feminine rider.”

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Well, okay. So Levi’s now came in a softer fabric (and slightly different cut) for ladies. But now that gold was no longer a reason for Levi’s success, it was time for the sex.

You have to understand that when urban Easterners vacation in someplace where the costume is different from what they are accustomed to, the big status measurement is who can go “native” the fastest. Thus the measure, say, in Miami, is the sexy lifeguard who has a tan that any 10-day vacationer can only aspire to.

Well, here were people going out to dude ranches, stiff and embarrassed by their crinkly-new Western clothes. There, the guys who worked there, the ones who really knew how to deal with the animals, all were wearing these incredibly faded, tight-fitting, low on the hips, tapered leg, snug in back and in front, Levi’s. Sexy.

So society people discovered Levi’s, took them home, which presented another problem: those damned rivets were okay on the range, but they scratched the Chippendale. So Levi’s developed hidden rivets for the back pockets and patented that.

But being sexy among a socialite few who have visited dude ranches is not the sort of acceptance necessary to put a company among the largest 500. Towards the end of the Second World War, Levi Strauss, which was still run by members of the Strauss family (as, indeed, it still is), and which had always remained consonant to the principle of its executives working their way up through the ranks, hired a minty-fresh batch of business school graduates.

These tyro execs, among others, immediately began agitating for the company to get out of the business of distributing other people’s products. It was an enormous gamble, but that’s what the company did. However much this reduced — temporarily — the firm’s dollar volume, it also tended to make the firm look harder at its own product, which led to another very smart idea.

Someone came up with the very bright thought of using the style of the Levi’s blue jeans on cotton trousers with a zipper. The first batch, as it happened, was done in a very light beige material, which quickly washed out to off-white. Thus, “White Levi’s.” Whatever social stigma that might have been attached to wearing a pair of blue jeans could hardly have been held to apply to “White Levi’s.”

Vintage Levi's company background info (3)

The new pants quickly became almost de rigueur for every kid in California. For one thing, the weather in California favored year-round cotton — no need to please Mom by wearing those scratchy woolies when it snowed.

For another, the postwar (and succeeding, for that matter) generation of California kids seemed all to have been born with long legs and little rears, the perfect figure for Levi’s. (Someday some enterprising social scientist, armed with the knowledge that this “look” has swept America, will do some research on why California kids looked and look that way, and how they keep their figures when the bulk of their immediate post-adolescent exercise is in the pressing down of an automobile’s gas and brake pedals.)

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In any event, Levi’s actually were a status symbol for a lot of California kids. A kid who wore another type of blue jean or sport slack was rated in some arcane way — Wranglers were here, Lee Riders were there, but the coolest thing you could wear was a pair of Levi’s.

It got even more bizarre. There was a widespread rumor among California kids that if one were to turn in a certain number of the little “Levis” tags off the might rear pocket, why, you’d get a pair free! This lead to attempts by some to remove the tags from the pants of others — and Mom could never quite understand why Junior was coming home battered: Levi’s tag hijackers!

Vintage Levi's Casuals clothing from 1955

About this time, Levi’s came up with an idea to help all us nascent fatties. It was traditional for wearers of Levi’s blue jeans to buy a slightly larger size, so as to allow for shrinkage, which the company candidly admitted was built-in.

Aside from the fact that this meant that someone would have to wash their Levi’s before they wore them, it was also a drag for people with an already-unpleasant amount of waistline, for all Levi’s blue jeans carry a maker’s tag on the right rear which all-too-boldly announces the waist and inseam size. It’s bad enough to be a solid 36 in California, where every guy seems to be 34 or less, but to have to carry a tag reading 38: can you explain to everyone that that was the pre-shrinkage size? Levi Strauss brought out a line of pre-shrunk, zipper-fly blue jeans.

All of which brings us up to a couple of years ago — can it already be seven? — when British fashion-mongers, the younger ones, anyway, came to the United States and found every great-looking young kid in Levi’s. That immediately suggested carrying the low-slung Levi’s cut to what was to become the Carnaby Street extreme.

1969 Levi's clothing - Fashion

As for the bottom of the pant — well, the turn-of-the-century Levi’s blue jean was bell-bottomed, and indeed, modern Levi’s, when they first were put on, seemed to flare at the bottom because they were pressed flat, inseam to outseam (no crease down the middle of the leg).

Levi’s never quite embraced the extreme British cut, but the company immediately brought out line after line of color, stripe, flare and bell-bottom (although many of the most attractive patterns are only available in Sta-Prest — a technique of putting an imperishable crease down the center of the trouser leg.

There are large numbers of people who don’t care for that crease, who in fact like the look of Levi’s when they are pressed with the creases at the inseam and outseam, and I should admit that I am one of these people, Levi Strauss take note).

MORE  Most bosses not ready for secretaries to wear pants to work (1969)

Grumblers like me notwithstanding (what, after all, do you think I’m wearing as I type this piece?), Levi Strauss today can’t keep up with its orders, and the rumor is that the company may have finally to go public — that is, issue public stock — in order to raise the millions needed to build more plants to make the pants which people are lined up to buy.

Levis 1972 fashion

It should be noted, finally, that the largest seller in the company line is — you guessed it! — the old blue jeans, button fly and shrink to fit. The seat of the corporate fortune, if you will. So it was with some considerable amusement that I faced a mildly upset secretary on my second visit to the Levi’s headquarters in San Francisco.

On my first trip, she had mentioned that some of the company’s old advertising materials — which we needed for illustration for this piece — were in a warehouse. Before I went up the second time, I called her and told her that I wanted to go into the place, and when she warned me that it was pretty dusty, I nonchalantly said that that was okay, I’d wear an old pair of Levi’s.

Levi’s blue jeans all-too-firmly in place, I arrived at her desk and was introduced to her boss. A few minutes later, there she was, mildly upset. I asked her what was wrong.

“I forgot to tell my boss that you’d be wearing Levi’s,” she said.

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“Well,” she said, “he didn’t think that they were exactly, uh, proper.”

There I was standing in the middle of Levi Strauss & Company wearing their blue jeans, and a secretary was telling me that her boss didn’t think the pants were proper.

All I could think of to do was laugh.

1972 Levi's clothes - fashion 2


Have you ever had a bad time in Levi’s? (1970)

Ebony May 1970 Levis fashion


Levi’s: Get into our pants (1974)

Levi's - Get into our pants - Nov 1974

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The Wonder Years’ Jason Hervey for Levi’s Youthwear (1979)

For several years before he played Wayne Arnold on the hit TV series The Wonder Years (1988-1993), little Jason Hervey was a very successful model. Here’s one of his campaigns from the late 1970s, showing off the latest and greatest denim for kids from Levi’s.
He’s 63 pounds of raw courage, held together by Levi’s Jeans.

Jason Hervey, Age 7. Los Angeles, California.

He’s tough all right. But when it comes to pants, he’s met his match: Levi’s Jeans. With their double-stitched seams, riveted pockets, and iron-strong fabric. Levi’s Jeans can take anything he can. And then some.

Put more muscle in your clothing budget. Look for Levi’s Youthwear. In denim and corduroy, sizes two to fourteen. Levi’s Youthwear. Quality never goes out of style.

Young actor Jason Hervey for Levi's jeans for kids - 1979


Levi’s Bend Over blazers (1982)

Levi's Bend Over blazers 1982

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Vintage Levi’s 505 jeans cut for women (1985)

Who’s got the best fitting jeans in these parts? Levi’s 505 preshrunk, zipper-fly jeans feel comfortable right down to your toe parts, thanks to a fit that’s trim, but never tight.

Levi’s Super Straight jeans are cut for a snug fit that flatters every part of your figure. (A small white patch neatly indicates just one of those parts.) But please note, no matter what fit you favor, you’ll find it in great-fitting Levi’s jeans.

Vintage Levi's 505 jeans cut for women - 1985

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