Following a recent visit to Russia, I traveled to France to continue sharing the story of the 501®–the world’s first blue jeans, and the blueprint for every blue jean today. The 501® jean began in the American West as working men’s waist overalls. Today it spans the globe, including the world’s foremost fashion capital, Paris. There’s a rich history of Levi’s® jeans in France that is both intriguing and fascinating.
An American Brand in Paris
Parisians were introduced to Levi’s® during the first all-American fashion show in Europe. After World War II, California apparel manufacturers had an idea to showcase their fashions to the European market. They thought, if Europe couldn’t come to America to see their products, why not take American products to Europe? In October 1947, the San Francisco Manufacturers and Wholesalers Association chartered two Matson DC-4 planes to fly civic leaders, models, manufacturers and the press to Paris. Levi Strauss & Co. joined other manufacturers to exhibit exquisitely tailored women’s suits, evening gowns, and one unusual pair of women’s denim pants—Lady Levi’s®, Lot 701®. As the female version of the 501®, Lot 701® had the same features: a button-fly and pocket rivets, but with a feminine fit.
Identical twin sisters, Priscilla and Patricia Emery modeled the Levi’s® blue jeans. Priscilla and Patricia dressed in 701®s and satin rodeo shirts with cowboy boots and hats. The girls wore their deep indigo Lady Levi’s® cuffed and made a favorable impression on Parisian press.
Identical twin sisters, Pris and Pat Emery, flew from San Francisco to Paris for Europe’s first all-American fashion show in 1947. They modeled Lady Levi’s® Lot 701®, the women’s version of the 501®.
From Celebrity 501®s to the Retro Wedgie
I enjoyed my own introduction to the Parisian press during interviews at the new Hotel Le Pigalle, a short walk from the Moulin Rouge. I met with a variety of journalists from Le Figaro to Vogue France and shared vintage Levi’s® 501®s from the Levi Strauss & Co. Archives. An editor from GQ France appreciated a March 1964 GQ copy I brought along. The cover features Hollywood film star Cary Grant in 501® jeans riding a horse near Palm Springs, California. In the magazine, Grant praises Levi Strauss for providing him with tailored jeans. “[Friends at Levi Strauss, the makers of the world-recognized Western clothes are kind enough to send them to me [and] make the trousers a trifle higher in the rise for me],” Grant explained.
Like Grant, I also appreciate a higher rise jean like the pair of 1980s women’s 501®s that I shared. The 1980s 501® jeans reminded me of the new Wedgie jean that I saw at the Levi Strauss store on the Champs Elysee, Paris’ grand avenue. A mural featuring a woman dressed in 501®s greeted me at the entrance. Mathilde Vaucheret, LS&Co. Public Relations Manager for France, showed me the variety of denim clothes for sale in the spacious shop.
Levi’s® Store on the Champs Elysee with 501® mural at the entrance.
Meeting with fashion editors at the Hotel Le Pigalle, a short walk from the Moulin Rouge.
The Denim is in the Details—and in St. Denis
Levi’s® 501® jeans have been made of denim, a traditional workwear fabric, since they were patented back in 1873. France has an interesting tie to the fabric that goes back more than a century earlier. Serge de Nimes fabric was a blend of wool and cotton known in France prior to the 17th century. Despite the similarity in name, the early French fabric was a marked contrast to the all-cotton indigo twill manufactured in America in the 1800s—the denim for our first 501® jeans.
And speaking of denim, a floor-length denim gown and robe caught my eye during a visit to the historic Saint Denis Basilica Cathedral. A blend of old and new, the garment is a new piece inspired by Blanche de France, the duchesse d’Orléans who lived from 1328 to 1393. The basilica had the denim set on display as part of an exhibit showcasing modern interpretations of ancient royal clothing.
Denim was the last thing I expected to see while touring St. Denis, the birthplace of gothic art and the necropolis of the kings of France. Among the notable royals buried here are Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette, Henri II and Catherine of Medici. Using denim to fashion linens for French royalty may not have been on the minds of the royal tailors, but it is certainly on the minds (and legs) of Parisians today as evidenced by the number of Levi’s® jeans I spotted while touring the Louvre and Paris’ famous underground catacombs.
My denim find at the Saint Denis Basilica Cathedral.
Tarts & Towers
Two final stops wrapped up my Parisian adventure—the Eiffel Tower and a French patisserie. I chose pistachio and lemon macarons and a dark chocolate tart from a shop near a Levi’s® store on the Rue de la Jussienne—yummy! After satisfying my sweet tooth, I walked along the Seine toward the Eiffel Tower. The sun was beginning to set, but not before I snapped a shot of the landmark with the 1944 501®s Commodore jeans with a “chap shadow,” the imprint left from leather chaps often worn by cowboys.
Checking out French pastries before finding the Levi’s® Store on the Rue de la Jussienne.
The Universal Uniform
On the plane ride home from Paris, I read a story about famed model Cindy Crawford who turned 50 in February. Prior to my departure, I shared a 1990 copy of Vogue UK magazine with French journalists where Cindy – along with other top models of the time: Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell and Tatjana Patitz – graced its cover.
The black and white photo shot by Peter Lindbergh featured the models from the waist up juxtaposed with the question, “The 1990s. What’s Next?”
This cover is a favorite of mine because it illustrates one essential element that unifies the group. Just noticeable at the bottom of the photo are denim waistbands and tiny copper rivets. Pan out of the image and you’ll see all five models in the most democratic and unifying of clothes, the global garment—Levi’s® 501® jeans.
Sunset near the Eiffel Tower with the 1944 501® Commodore jeans.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tracey Panek is the Historian for Levi Strauss & Co. where she manages the day-to-day workings of the Levi Strauss & Co. Archives as a key corporate asset, answering historical questions, assisting designers, brand managers, executives and other employees whose work requires historical materials in the Archives.
Prior to joining LS&Co., Tracey spent 14 years as Historian and Archivist at AAA Northern California, Nevada & Utah where she managed a corporate history program for the 100+ year old company. She began her corporate history career at AirTouch Communications—today Verizon and Vodafone—a San Francisco based company that launched cellular service at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984.
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