Levi's 501: The Jeans That Launched a Thousand Dreams

‘The greatest story ever worn’, claims Levi’s in a strutting celebration of its iconic 501 jeans. But conceited as it sounds, that tagline also rings true

Global brand ambassador Deepika Padukone is the face of the 150 years of the Levi's 501 campaign.
Global brand ambassador Deepika Padukone is the face of the 150 years of the Levi's 501 campaign.

Denise D'Silva

Did you recently catch yourself staring fixedly at Deepika Padukone on one of those high billboards in your city? I don’t know about you, but as soon as I see her in those iconic 501s, it makes me straighten my posture, fidget with my top, and want to head to the cupboard to pull out my own pair. That’s the pull of the Levi’s 501 jeans. It stirs emotions—and it empowers you. Not just with the choice of faces in its ads. Nor only in how it fits your frame but how it seems to fit your story, your own affair, if you like, with this muchstoried garment.

Another matter that Levi’s did, over the years, line up quite a star cast of faces to launch the thousand dreams the 501 has inspired. Marilyn Monroe was one of the first women in the 1950s to wear a pair of 501s in The River of No Return. Marlon Brando gave us the classic biker look that rules even today when he added leather jacket, boots and a motorcycle to the 501s he strutted in the The Wild One. Lauren Hutton, Stephanie Seymour, Nick Kamen, Bruce Willis, Pharrell Williams, Julian McMahon—the list of beautiful people who starred in or whose careers were launched by 501 ads is truly impressive. Perhaps only a garment as cool as it is comfortable, as wild as it is wearable could have become a co-star in the story of their lives.

Marilyn Monroe was one of the first women in the 1950s to wear a pair of 501s in The River of No Return.
Marilyn Monroe was one of the first women in the 1950s to wear a pair of 501s in The River of No Return.

To understand why the 501s are considered such a design classic, a flashback is in order. In 1873, if a frustrated housewife hadn’t complained to the local tailor about her husband’s proclivity for tearing his pant pockets while carrying rocks in them, the world would never have seen the 501 blue jeans. Jacob Davis, the tailor, came up with the idea of adding copper rivets to the stress points of the pants in order to make them last longer. He needed a patent. But he didn’t have the 68 dollars it would take. So, he approached his fabric supplier, Levi Strauss. Together they patented the rivet system on 20 May 1873. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The classic Levi’s 501 that we all love to flaunt started off as a simple, sturdy workaday pair of pants with copper rivets and a button fly. And while I personally think the 501s are best with the button fly—there’s something about the way the buttons pull in different directions that works for curves and the all-you-caneat buffets I occasionally treat them to—this was another instance of necessity being the mother of invention, the zipper being invented much later. In 1990, almost 50 years after the 501s were launched with the zipper (501Z), both camps were called into the debate about the respective merits, with the button-down winning hands-down.

Julian McMahon in Levi's 501.
Julian McMahon in Levi's 501.

As for the number 501, which caught on in a way that still fires our synapses, there isn’t any deep meaning behind it. Apparently, it’s just a lot number to distinguish it from all the other products the company makes. Go figure!

2023 marks 150 years of the Levi’s 501. Their creative agency Droga5 celebrated this milestone by launching ‘The greatest story ever worn’ at the Grammys. A tall claim, that perhaps only Levi’s could actually make. The stories that the campaign captures are all real— trust Levi’s to have them in store. A boy who trades his cow for a pair of jeans in 1982. 1950s school kids who bleached their 501s because blue jeans were banned in school. A man whose dying wish is to have everyone at his funeral dressed in 501s. Unlike Levi’s earlier advertising that wrote original/creative stories, ‘The greatest story ever worn’ is simply one of the world’s most ingenious brands unfolding the rich narratives it has created over the past 150 years, presented through great cinematography. What an idea!

Marlon Brando gave us the classic biker look that rules even today when he added leather jacket, boots and a motorcycle to the 501s he strutted in the The Wild One.
Marlon Brando gave us the classic biker look that rules even today when he added leather jacket, boots and a motorcycle to the 501s he strutted in the The Wild One.

Levi’s commercials, and the jeans themselves, have historically pinpointed era-defining movements and cultural shifts. As a clothing brand, it could have simply spoken about fabric or fashion or some such. But instead, much like the renegade idea of adding a copper rivet to a pocket corner that birthed the original Levi’s 501 jeans in 1873— its equally renegade advertising has catapulted it from being an article of clothing to becoming an emblem of change.

Take the ads. As a kid growing up in the eighties and nineties in preliberalised India, watching the brand’s television ads and being introduced to a pair of jeans that was rebellious, unafraid and witty, opened my eyes to the world of creativity in advertising. It helped that I had a much older sibling in the creative department of an agency with access to international ad cassettes that we could play on our VCR. Yes, that era! There was always a little bit of suggestiveness in the Levi’s ads, which I’m pretty sure my impressionable mind wasn’t supposed to see. But I was only following the story. And Levi’s always told the sharpest stories, they always had an idea and one always waited for the penny-drop line at the end, which was so brilliantly articulated.

Bruce Willis in the iconic Levi's 501 commercial.
Bruce Willis in the iconic Levi's 501 commercial.

Take the ad where a handsome young man clad in nothing but his 501s keeps jumping into pool after pool after pool in the neighbourhood, till he gets to his girl. Instead of underscoring the sexiness, the line at the end simply says: ‘The more you wash them, the better they get.’ Or the classic black-and-white creek commercial that shows two Amish sisters spying on a topless man bathing in the Yosemite River only to see him emerge with his 501s on. A very clever line rounds it off: ‘In 1873, Levi’s only came in shrink-to-fit.’

Or the hard-hitting 2009 Levi’s ‘Go Forth’ campaign headline: ‘This country wasn’t built by men wearing suits.’ ‘Go Forth’ had impeccable timing. Here was a brand that had gone a bit quiet. And here was a country that needed to be heard and healed in the wake of the most devastating hurricane Katrina. The campaign aimed to rekindle the pioneering spirit of America and salute the optimism of its people, and much of it used Walt Whitman’s classic, rousing poetry about America.

The art of copywriting found its most willing participant in brand Levi’s. As I revisit the archives for this piece, I must admit that the 501s definitely shaped my desire to be a copywriter. Dishy men were quite the thing in the Levi’s ads and the male form had rarely enjoyed more screen space and unabashed gawking. In fact, Levi’s legitimised women’s unabashed ‘admiration’ of men in their commercials—a great way to subtly communicate equality. In retrospect, this too could have nudged me (rather misleadingly) towards advertising! I’ve lost count of the number of times I have tried to get a script passed that begins: ‘Film opens on a deserted island with Milind (sometimes it’s Sid Malhotra or Rahul Khanna—I don’t discriminate) dressed in the barest of glad rags, heroically saving the day/maiden/ turtle/self with toothpaste/paint/ water purifiers!’ Suffice it to say, not all clients are Levi’s.

In the dynamic (and fickle) world of fashion, to be able to sell the same product over and over again needs creativity for sure, but also courage. And that’s exactly what the agencies that handled Levi’s displayed. They changed one tiny bit of messaging based on one tiny product innovation. They tapped into the times. They went ahead and told bold stories. And they expected to impress nobody. Thereby managing to woo everybody.

Oh, and did I mention the music? If music apps had a ‘best advertising commercial soundtrack’ playlist, Levi’s would be top of the charts. Not only did the songs play on loop in your head for months, they just made perfect sense for the stories being told.

Picture this. Brad Pitt. Young. Gorgeous. (Yes, he’s in a Levi’s ad, google it now and thank me later.) Anyway, he’s being let out of prison by a vindictive warden in nothing but vest and boxers. Outside the dusty prison gates, there’s a gorgeous girl waiting for him, who hands him his Levi’s jeans and—what ensues is pure sensuousness. (The writer of this ad has all my respect, and voodoo pins.) And the soundtrack? A song released way back in 1973 just works beautifully. “Well, it’s plain to see you were meant for me, yeah I’m your boy, your 20th century toy” plus Brad Pitt in Levi’s equals Genius.

Or take one of my favourites from 2014—the ‘Live in Levi’s ad’ that told people the myriad ways in which they could wear their Levi’s—it didn’t matter how you wore them as long as you didn’t bore them! This wry message of what you owed your Levi’s is told to the foot-tapping Rumble and Sway by Jamie and the Commons.

As a consumer, the draw of the 501s has always been its fit, and its versatility. I cannot think of a single attitude or outfit that the 501 cannot embellish or accentuate. As an advertising professional, it’s one of those brands I would give an arm and a leg to work on. (Not today of course, I need to have both legs to wear my 501s and roll around like Deepika.) But going beyond the advertising and glamour of the brand is a fact that still resonates for me. That a copper rivet and a buttondown fly could bridge the gap between the sexes, and give us all freedom of movement and style. Withstanding generations of good and bad fashion trends, it changed the way we look, forever. When we wear a Levi’s 501, what we’re really doing is wearing an incredible, and incredibly simple, idea.

P.S. And Levi’s, if you’re listening, maybe in your 150th year, you might consider adding a few more rivets to a few more strain points so we can all fit into our favourite, slightly snug 501s sitting hopefully in our wardrobes—and re-live its sensuous magic?

DENISE D’SILVA is co-founder and creative head of Hyphen Brands, one of India’s top ten design and advertising firms.

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