How Levi’s 501 Jeans Became Iconic: A Short Documentary Featuring John Baldessari, Henry Rollins, Lee Ranaldo & More

In his memoir Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere, the American Japanologist John Nathan remembers evenings in the 1960s spent with Yukio Mishima, whose work he translated into English. “I listened raptly as he recited passages from The Tale of the Heike that revealed the fierceness and delicacy of Japan’s warrior-poets, or showed me the fine calibration of the Chinese spectrum,” Nathan writes. “One night he stood up abruptly from behind his desk, asked me to wait a minute, and left the room. When he came back he had changed into a pair of blue jeans and a thick black leather belt. He explained that he had been sandpapering the jeans to make them identical to the pair Marlon Brando had worn in The Wild One.”

Even a figure like Mishima, who within a few years would die in an ultranationalistic ritual suicide after a hopeless attempted coup, felt the allure of American blue jeans. Though Nathan doesn’t note whether Mishima’s pair were genuine Levi’s 501s, the exacting standards to which Mishima held himself in all respects would seem to demand that measure of authenticity.

“Authenticity,” of course, is a quality from which Levi Strauss & Co. have drawn a great deal of value for their brand, their signature riveted denim product going back as it does nearly a century and a half, to a time when rugged pants were in great demand from the miners of California’s gold rush. But it was in the economically flush and newly media-saturated decades after the Second World War that jeans took their hold on the American imagination, and soon on the world’s.

The pants, the myth, and the legend star in The 501 Jean: Stories of an Original, a threepart series of short documentaries produced by Levi’s themselves and narrated by American folk singer Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Its gallery of 501-wearers includes such job titles as Musician, Photographer, Garmentologist, Biker, Creative Director, Music/Style Consultant, and Urban Cowboy. Conceptual artist John Baldessari discusses the childhood love of cowboy shows that lodged jeans permanently into his worldview. Album designer Gary Burden brings out his own work, a copy of Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush, to demonstrate the impact of jeans on popular music. That both Burden and Baldessari have passed away since these videos’ production underscores the current fast departure of the generations who took jeans from the realm of the utilitarian into that of the iconic — some of whose members have doubtless chosen to be buried in their 501s.

Related Content:

Dress Like an Intellectual Icon with Japanese Coats Inspired by the Wardrobes of Camus, Sartre, Duchamp, Le Corbusier & Others

What Happens to the Clothes We Throw Away?: Watch Unravel, a Short Documentary on the Journey Our Waste Takes

Google Creates a Digital Archive of World Fashion: Features 30,000 Images, Covering 3,000 Years of Fashion History

A Brief History of John Baldessari (RIP) Narrated by Tom Waits: A Tribute to the Late “Godfather of Conceptual Art”

Henry Rollins Tells Young People to Avoid Resentment and to Pursue Success with a “Monastic Obsession”

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletterBooks on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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