Impressions of India
As a prelude to the full global reset of our Levi’s® women’s product line, I recently traveled to India to share LS&Co.’s story of women’s wear. India has an amazing history dating back thousands of years, making this visit an incredible experience for a historian. From ancient forts to breathtaking monuments, the sites of India exceeded my expectations. The lush foliage and animal life — monkeys, elephants, water buffalo, and a variety of birds just to name a few — all added to the wonder.
Prior to my presentation I visited the world-famous Taj Mahal, carrying our first women’s blue jeans with me. I enjoyed a sunrise visit to the amazing marble edifice and learned the history of this world heritage site.
What do the Taj Mahal and Lady Levi’s® have in common? Both were created for women. The Taj Mahal was built by grief-stricken Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan as a memorial to his third wife, Mumtaz, who died giving birth to their fourteenth child.
Weaving a Colorful Clothing History
From the Taj Mahal I traveled to Jaipur, one of India’s textile centers, to experience Indian printing and tailoring. LS&Co.’s oldest blue jeans, our XX (~1879) and Calico (1890) pants, take on patterns like “whiskering” from years of wear rubbing away the denim’s natural indigo dye. In Jaipur, prints are also made using vegetable dye, but the patterns are formed by hand-stamping fabric with wooden block prints. Custom tailoring is also common in Jaipur and I couldn’t resist ordering a made-to-order embroidered shirt.
Another Jaipur surprise? Royal women wore a type of pants! I spotted a painting of a women wearing pants in Jaipur’s City Palace. In contrast to the women who first dressed in Lady Levi’s® blue jeans in 1934, many Hindi women wore leggings beneath their flowing skirts decades prior to American women adopting pants. As a souvenir to document this practice, I bought an illustration from an artist displaying his works nearby. The look reminded me of LS&Co.’s first women’s garment, Freedom-Alls (1918), a one-piece tunic worn atop balloon pants. I later learned about traditional woman’s trousers called salwar (loose but fitted at the ankles) or churidar (loose to the knees and fitted at the calf).
Although pants have been worn by Indian women for generations, Indians are relative newcomers to blue jeans. According to Clare Wilkinson-Weber in Screening Jeans in Bollywood, Bollywood male Hindi film stars first donned denim in the early to mid-1970s, with female film stars wearing jeans by the late 1970s. It took another twenty years before blue jeans gained general acceptance in India. Wilkinson-Weber explains that this trend culminated in the 1990s when the desire to emulate movie costumes met with relaxed foreign import curbs and a proliferating consumer goods market.
Given India’s recent history with denim, sharing the evolution of women’s blue jeans was important to give Indian media and social networkers the context for our new women’s denim line.
With sightseeing behind me, I headed to Mumbai. Media and bloggers arrived for an early evening event at our flagship store on Linking Road. Meeta Bharvani, Marketing Lead for the Levi’s® Brand in India, kicked off the event. My job? To chronicle the history of women’s products and marketing at LS&Co. My goal was to demonstrate that our latest women’s products are 80+ years in the making.
My presentation featured vintage garments, advertisements and marketing pieces. I shared six Levi’s® vintage garments that I hand-carried from the Levi Strauss & Co. Archives. The feature piece was “Harriet,” our oldest pair of Lady Levi’s® Lot 701 from the 1930s. Other garments included a slim black pair of Ranch Pants with pearl buttons from the 1960s, 1970s bell bottoms, 1980s women’s 501® jeans—my high school uniform—and our 2001 Superlows.
More to Come
My trip to India was a rare opportunity to experience the global reach of Levi’s® jeans — a huge contrast to their humble San Francisco origins. I’ll continue sharing our history of women’s products at events later in the year. Stay tuned…