The History, Styling, and Legacy of the Levi’s 501.


The author’s pair of vintage Levi’s 501XX, dated to the early 1990s. If you look closely, you’ll notice that they’re absolutely beautiful and perfect.

The Levi’s 501XX is my and many others’ favorite piece of clothing. It’s about as reliable and timeless and perfect as it gets, and has a well-documented, culturally significant history.

And for that reason, many, many, many people have already written awesome things about Levi’s 501s, and they know a heck of a lot more than I do. Here’s a bunch of interesting links


The History of The Levi’s 501 Jean: Literally a PDF from Levi Strauss. As romanticized as some other writers might get about the product, this is the place to begin. Some fun facts:

  • Levi’s were first made with 9oz denim (to be worn over trousers)
  • The Red Tab Appeared in 1936
  • XXX denim introduced in 1983 (Where’d it go?)

The 501® Jean: Stories of an Original | Full Documentary: This is a bit heartbreaking to watch in light of Cone’s closure of the White Oak plant in Greensboro, but the video footage is worth it. Actual quote: “The 501 is the australopithecus of cool jeans.”

How to see vintage Levi’s 501s | FASHION AS DESIGN: A video here from the Museum of the Modern Art includes a close look at a pair of 19th century Levi 501s found in the 1940s by woman camping in California. After she found them, she wore them to high school for a few years.

50 Things You Didn’t Know About Levi’s | COMPLEX: This is more about Levi’s than the 501 specifically, but that’s frankly the core of their history as it is. Worth a read; big shout to COMPLEX for making their list on a single page. No slide shows, interstitials, or multi-page article to increase views. Thanks, Complex.

Turns out the reason I never find vintage Levi’s is because they weren’t sold in New England until the 1950s. That must be it.


Actually I’ll just embed a bunch of commercials.






Vintage Levi’s 501 Jeans – The Ultimate Collector’s Guide: This really is an ultimate guide. It would make a terrific flowchart, and if PopMatters and Heddel’s got together I’d 100% buy that poster at a discount.

Experience: I mine for 100-year-old jeans| The Guardian: GQ got a cool 250 word blog post by summarizing and linking to this article, but Fortune got over 300! It’s about a who man mines for jeans. Please read the article at its original source. Or, read another interview in a regional magazine.

A look at 501XX, the book | WGSN: A few years back a gorgeous book about the 501XX jean was released by one of Japan’s leading collectors and dealers, Yutaka Fujihara. This article shares some of the visuals. The book itself is $120 and I’m not sure how best to buy it. : Pure HTML beauty.


Shrink to Fit: A Guide to Shrinking the Classic Levi’s 501 STF Jeans | Primer: A comprehensive guide to getting the best results from a new pair of Levi’s STF 501s, which in my opinion are the best deal and denim.

How to Shrink To Fit (STF) your Levi’s |THIGHS BIGGER THAN YOUR HEAD: This is the guide I used when I got my first pair of STFs fresh out of college. (Fun fact: I didn’t wear jeans between ages 11 and 22.)

A Thread on Ask Andy In Which Members Share Sizing Tips: There’s no perfect way to size your jeans. Best to take the experience of others and make an informed decision though. Here’s a thread to help you do that.


Much of the hype surrounding the 501 focuses on pairs from before 1981 or so; that is today, selvage. From 1981ish to 1971 we have selvage jeans with a little e, and the big E before that.

I don’t have the means to spend $250 on used jeans myself, but I get a satisfaction–part smug, part value–from wearing 501s made in the 80s and early 90s. Some 501s were made in the USA until 2003. That Heddel’s Guide I linked to at the top breaks down some of the intricate details for dating the jeans.

If you want to dig around on Ebay or find them at your local thrift, here’s what to look for:

    • Measurements: I have pairs tagged 32, 34, and 35. They all measure about the same on the waist; stretching and shrinking is never quite predictable. Note that your 501s will fit a little bit higher on your waist than most contemporary jeans, so account for that. Personally, I take my 501s with a slightly smaller waist measurement than my other pairs.
    • Color: Gauging the color vintage Levi’s is a tough business. What looks to be deep indigo in a photo might turn out to be more of a medium stone wash. And what looks like high contrast fading may in fact just be light-wash throughout with the flash on. Look for photos taken in natural light or outdoors. Some sellers might say “Photo 4 is the best representation of color.” Trust them.
    • Button Number: Levi’s made in the late 80s and 90s have a 3 digit number stamped on the top front button. If they were made in the USA, the number begins with a 5.
    • “Dark”: If you’re looking for jeans with a lot of life left, go with this; it will turn up more results than “indigo” and truly raw versions (with the tags on) will be around $200.
    • “Killer fade” This term usually gives me pause, as I can’t imagine an honest denimhead using it non-ironically. Be your own judge.
    • “Distressed” / “Destroyed” Another term about which you should use your best judgment. If you’re going for a look, go for it. But beware paying for jeans that will fall apart.
    • “Black bar tack” For a little while around 1980, some Levi’s 501s were made with selvage denim and some were not. Non-selvage jeans from this period have a black bar tack on the rear pocket. It dates the jeans to sometime around 1980, and might add a little value compared to something from 1986.
    • “Single Stitch” If someone has non-selvage Levi 501s advertised as single stitch, they don’t what they’re talking about.


I think that Levi’s 501 T-shirts are awesome and everyone should own one.

Here at Comma Vintage, we frequently ship 501s and other kinds of vintage American-made jeans to our subscribers. Sign up now and take $10 off your subscription with code “TAKEPAUSE.”

One thought on “The History, Styling, and Legacy of the Levi’s 501.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s