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 three-part 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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