Levi’s Celebrates 150 Years Of 501®

This year, one of the key pioneers of denim, Levi’s celebrates 150 years of their legendary 501® jeans style. With the release of the iconic 501® back in the day, they started a true revolution that is still going strong after all these years as it’s still the cornerstone of the brand and many denim enthusiasts all around the globe.

The 501® is worn by many generations, first developed as a true workwear garment for gold and silver miners, later followed up by cowboys, farmers, rebels, hippies, and everyone that need a sturdy pair of blue jeans. Later, during the 1980s, Levi’s exploded with their now legendary tv-commercials and became the talk of the town and was strongly linked to all kinds of scenes such as punkers, rockers, skaters, and also within the growing DIY fashion group of people that used their 501®’s as a canvas to express themselves by personalizing them.

Since then, the 501® has grown into a true cult piece and is worn by the widest variety of people. While most brands come each season with new models and designs, Levi’s 501® was built to last and is a pioneer in denim sustainability as its design has endured the test of time.

This upcoming 20th of May, Levi’s celebrates internationally the 150 year anniversary of the 501® jeans style, so time to zoom in on all the details and some of the magical years that are attached to the 501. There are many important 501® years, but let’s highlight 10 key moments throughout the 501® history. The jeans style shook the industry and many lives all around the world. So, here’s the evolution of the 501® jeans!


The year 1873 is seen by many as the starting point of the denim story. It was the year when the founder of Levi’s, Levi Strauss, received the patent for the rivet together with tailor Jacob Davis. They got the patent on the 20th of May in 1873. This patent is known as No. 139,121: ‘Fastening Pocket-Openings’. The rivet was added on pair of waist overalls (that’s what they named blue jeans back in the day) to make them stronger on points of strength.

Nowadays each pair of Levi’s still features the rivet which is one of the key elements that makes 501® wearable for many years. Who would have thought that just a small copper rivet would change the industry forever?



In 1890, Levi’s produced for seventeen years sturdy workwear pants that were enormously popular. These strong workwear pants were made of 9oz denim fabric from the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company, with a plain selvedge ID, and were worn over long underwear or other pants. That’s why these pants were called waist overalls.

It was also the year Levi’s started to use lot number 501® as a reference to their pants. For retailers, it was easier to order their products by number rather than a simple description, as had been done in the past.

On the inside pocket bag of the waist overalls, information about the strength and originality of the overalls were printed to distinguish themselves from other brands.



It was the year 1901 when Levi’s added the fifth pocket on their jeans for the very first time. Until then, each pair had only four pockets, so two front pockets, a coin/watch pocket, and only one back pocket on the right side. The left-back pocket, the fifth on a pair of jeans, was added so miners and workers could easily carry more in their pockets. A true milestone within the denim industry!

Jeans are nowadays also commonly referred as five-pocket jeans, and Levi’s was the pioneer and was the first to introduce the second back pocket.

Fun note: As most people are righthanded, the first back pocket was therefore placed on the right, so people could easily reach this pocket.

Fun note 2: Most people think the coin/watch pocket was added last, but this wasn’t the case as it was already part of its design since the beginning.



When Levi’s introduced their 501®’s, they were having a cinch back and suspender buttons. Wearers could choose how they put up their pair, using the cinch back and/or by using a suspender that could be fastened on the suspender buttons that were placed on the waistband.

In 1922, Levi’s made another revolutionary step with their 501® design as they introduced as first denim brand ever belt loops on their pairs of overalls. With the introduction of belt loops, people could keep their jeans up with a belt from now on.


1936 – 1937

One year before 1937, in 1936, Levi’s introduced their Red Tab. This small but strong branding element on the right back pocket was added so people could easily recognize if it was a genuine pair of Levi’s. The word Levi’s is stitched in white in all capital letters on one side only on the Red Tab.

In 1937, Levi’s started producing their 501®’s with back pockets on the overalls that are sewn so that they cover the rivets. This is in response to consumers who complained that the rivets scratched furniture and saddles.

The belt loops were still part of the 501® design, the same as the cinch back. Belt-wearers became more and more popular, so the suspender buttons were removed. Those that would like to keep wearing their 501®’s with suspenders could add these at their denim retailer as Levi’s provided them with the so-called ‘Press Buttons’. These buttons could easily be added on the waistband in the store if people preferred.



During World War 2, everyone was forced to save material for wartime. Therefore unnecessary elements on a pair of jeans were eliminated. This resulted that Levi’s removed the cinch back, the rivets on the coin/watch pocket, the rivet at the crotch, but also the thread of the arcuates on the back pockets. But, to keep the strong brand signature on these pockets, Levi’s came up with the smart idea of painting these arcuates on the pockets so people still saw in a blink of an eye that they were buying (and someone wearing) an original pair of Levi’s 501®.

Also, to save material, standard buttons were used on the fly of the 501® jeans. These buttons featured laurel leaves, something that is referred to as a symbol of peace, protection, and victory. Laurel leaves were also commonly put under pillows at night to gain inspiration through dreams.

For the inner pocket bags, they used different fabrics during this production period, also to preserve materials for the war effort. Therefore, they used fabrics that were available at that moment, so some examples of 501®’s of this period are made with herringbone fabrics, while others have olive drab (OD) green or check fabrics.



After World War 2, some elements of the Levi’s 501® came back as raw materials were available again. So, it was the return of some familiar 501 features, like the coin/watch pocket rivets, ecru inner pocket bags, and also the arcuate stitching on the back pockets. Thanks to new double-needle technology, these famed double-arched stitches could be mass-produced in uniform size and design, so they were no longer subject to the sewing skills of the individual worker behind the sewing machine.

The cinch back and the suspenders didn’t make a return on the 501® design, and the fit of the jeans became more modern, so a bit slimmer. The regular 501® jeans fit from this period became the standard for the denim industry, even today.

Fun note: The new double-needle technology that was used to stitch the arcuates on the back pockets gives it the ‘diamond’ shape at the point where the two lines of stitching meet.


1953 – 1954

In 1953, Levi’s started to stitch their brand name LEVI’S in white in all capital letters on both sides of the Red Tab on their 501®’s.

In the same year, actor Marlon Brando was wearing a pair of Levi’s 501® in the movie ‘The Wild One’. His popular rebellious character in the movie kicked off many youths starting to wear 501®’s in combination with a plain white t-shirt, leather jacket, and boots. An outfit that still dominates by many denim people today.

A year later, in 1954, Levi’s introduced their 501® jeans with a zipper, so these jeans were named 501Z®. This upgrade was done as Levi’s earned a loyal following on the East Coast of America, but they were unfamiliar with the regular button fly. In the end, retailers provided customers with both options, the 501® with a button and zipper fly.



In 1971, Levi’s switched their corporate identity as they stitched its brand name on the Red Tab with a capital L only. The E on the Red Tab looks like it changed, leading to the vintage clothing concept of ‘Big E’ and ‘little e’. This change was done to conform to the company’s new house mark, the ‘Batwing’, which was adopted in 1967 and in which the word Levi’s is meant to be the proper name of the founder of the brand, Levi Strauss.

Fun note: Levi’s 501®’s with a so-called ‘Big ERed Tab are true collector items nowadays for many denim enthusiasts and a good reference for vintage examples of the brand.



This year, on the 20th of May, Levi’s celebrates worldwide the 150th anniversary of their legendary 501 jeans style. That this popular 501® style stood the test of time is a fact. A milestone within the denim industry, but also the fashion world. There are so many stories attached to this iconic jeans style, and every pair of 501®’s has its own unique story to tell, as is visible in the campaign they launched this year: ‘The greatest story ever worn’ which showcases various true and iconic denim stories. That’s the beauty of denim, it’s more than just a piece of clothing. It’s a lifestyle. The 501® by Levi’s is here to stay forever, and ready for the next 150 years! So, to be continued…

All images (and videos) by Levi’s.


Written by Wouter Munnichs
I'm the founder of Long John. Next to running this daily magazine, I'm working as a freelance denim specialist for the industry. Titled as 'Denim Influencer 2020' by Rivet 50. Celebrated my 10th anniversary with Long John in 2021.