Levi's Ads, 1970s.
Ahead of Levi's inclusion in the V&A's You Say You Want a Revolution? Records & Rebels 1966 - 1970 exhibition this autumn, Vogue meets the brand's historian, Tracey Panek, to talk about Levi's historical influence, her favourite archive items and the stories behind some of the brand's most iconic pieces.
What's it been like to work with the V&A?
It's really exciting! The V&A is one of my favorite museums and it's been a real pleasure working with them. I toured their conservation area earlier this week and was struck by the similarities. At the Levi Strauss & Co. archives in San Francisco, we even use the same type of boxes to store our and conserve our vintage garments as the V&A.
I think one of the things that sets this partnership apart is how authentic it feels for both partners. The Sixties were not only a defining moment in popular culture but also a period when LS&Co. was at the forefront of the generational and social zeitgeist. One of the V&A's curators came to visit us in San Francisco last year and, together, we picked Levi's pieces that could best showcase the themes in the exhibition, which was great. We'll be featuring a pair of our iconic 501 jeans, a Fifties leather jacket (the ultimate "rebel wear" piece) and an amazing pair of customised 505 jeans. The colours on the 505 from the patches and embellishments will really knock people out. We're also including a pair of bellbottoms and Super Slim jeans from our Orange Tab line that was first introduced in 1969.
What defines that period - the late Sixties - in fashion to you?
Fashion can be a key indicator of time and culture. The late Sixties and early Seventies were an explosive time, symbolised by a rising youth culture experimenting with music, drugs, counter-culture ideals and political activism. These happenings influenced fashion, with dress becoming a personal expression of one's philosophies and individuality. Colour, customisation and thrift-shop chic were among the distinctive elements of style and blue jeans and denim became a canvas for such personal expression.
The introduction of Levi's 505 jeans in 1967 fit seamlessly into this era and was quickly adopted by many teenagers, hippies and rock-and-rollers. A classic straight leg jean in pre-shrunk denim with a zipper, rather than a button fly, the slim-fitting 505 became the unofficial uniform for many trailblazers and musicians who came to define the era. From rockers like the Rolling Stones who used the jeans' zipper fly on the cover of Sticky Fingers to punk bands like the Ramones, the "coming of age" 505 jean became a staple for later rock stars like Debbie Harry.
What influence do you think Levi's had on that era and vice versa?
The association of Levi's jeans with youth culture, music and individual style flourished in the Sixties. The late Sixties and early Seventies were an incredibly rich cultural period - where youth led a change in the social-political-cultural zeitgeist. Peace marches, the desire for sexual freedom, student protests and an explosion of music left a lasting influence on today's society, with Levi's interwoven into the fabric of that time. With our headquarters set in San Francisco, an epicenter of that cultural change, Levi's garments naturally became integrated into the social fabric of the era.
Do you own any vintage pieces from that era that you love?
I've been a life-long fan of Levi's jeans and wore 501 jeans throughout high school. The 501 was the world's first blue jean and the blueprint for all jeans today. They are a classic and were a must-have item for my three sisters and I during school. I wished I had saved those jeans when I left home for college!
What's your personal favourite period of time in terms of fashion and why?
I'm a product of fashion in the Eighties when I was in high school. I wore shrink-to-fit Levi's 501s and borrowed a skinny black silk tie from my dad - something he wore in the Fifties. The tie reminds me of one I saw at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame owned by Buddy Holly. He wore it with a black suit and it's typical of the time. My 501s, dad's tie and a red pullover sweater was a favorite outfit from that time. I was just starting to develop my own sense of style back then.
Can you tell us more about your role as the Levi Strauss historian?
I feel incredibly fortunate that I'm able to apply my passion for history at work every day. As the historian for Levi Strauss & Co., I work closely with executives, employees and the public to understand, interpret and share the heritage of the brand. I also manage the archives and work closely with our design team studying historic items from the collection to use as inspiration for future products. On top of that, I'm always on the lookout for new additions to the archives and am regularly searching and asking questions to gain a deeper understanding of how LS&Co. fits into larger scope of history.
What elements of the role do you particularly enjoy?
I love hearing stories from Levi's fans! The stories range from one of a man I met in Moscow whose father bought Levi's jeans on the black market during the Cold War and a woman in India who just starting wearing our women's 711 skinny jean, to the story of Barbara, an 80-plus-year-old woman from Los Angeles who found our famous Calico 1890 waist overalls in a mine in the Mojave Desert as a teenager in the Forties.
What, in your opinion, is the most interesting/surprising thing about the history of the brand?
I've been pleasantly surprised by the interconnections of the Levi's brand with key cultural moments in history. This happened to me while I was visiting London. I learned that a Levi Strauss & Co. leather jacket worn by Albert Einstein was going to be up for auction. I went to Christie's Auction House to see it and ended being the successful bidder.
Einstein bought the jacket sometime in the mid-Thirties when he was preparing for naturalisation - a fitting symbol of his journey to becoming an "official American" by purchasing an iconic American brand. Einstein was famously photographed in the Levi's jacket throughout the period and appeared in it on the cover of Time magazine in 1938.
In a surprising coming together of Einstein and the Levi's brand, Time magazine named Einstein Man of the Century in 1999 when his photo was again featured on the cover. In the same issue, Levi's 501 jeans were named the Fashion Item of the 20th Century.