Photo: Levi Strauss & Co. Archives
More than a century before Silicon Valley began churning out gadgets and apps, the Bay Area produced an invention that remains even more omnipresent than the iPhone: blue jeans. Starting this month, an exhibit at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, Levi Strauss: A History of American Style, tells the story of how a Bavarian-Jewish immigrant’s “waist overalls” became a wardrobe staple worldwide.
“We’re trying to make this thoughtful in terms of, what is American style?” says the museum’s senior curator, Heidi Rabben, who also notes that Strauss’s success represents “a quintessential American immigrant story.”
Levi Strauss & Co. began as a dry goods business during the California Gold Rush. In 1873, Strauss and tailor Jacob W. Davis collaborated on a patent for riveted denim work pants. The museum takes visitors from these early days to Strauss’s rise to becoming a civic leader and philanthropist nicknamed “Uncle Levi,” before covering the importance of blue jeans to American style and culture—from the rugged cowboys of Golden Age Hollywood Westerns to the youth counterculture of the ’60s and ’70s and beyond.
The exhibit relates this nearly 150-year history primarily using items from the Levi Strauss & Co. archive, including historical advertisements, a pair of jeans and a T-shirt worn by Harvey Milk, a denim suit custom-made for Lauren Bacall (pictured, top right), a reissue of Albert Einstein’s favorite Levi’s leather jacket, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. album cover, and even a 1970s AMC Gremlin upholstered entirely in denim.
“We tried to have at least one important garment from every decade, dating to about 1900,” Rabben says. “For something to last that long, it has to be almost like a perfect storm of perfect design. That’s why there’s a pair of Levi’s jeans at the Smithsonian.” thecjm.org