women’s 501®

Celebrating 40 Years of the Women’s 501® Jean

Tracey Panek, LS&Co. Historian
Levi Strauss & Co.
May 13, 2021

While the name Levi’s® is synonymous with blue jeans, it also made “herstory” by creating the first jeans for women in the 1930s.

Forever altering the course of women’s fashion, the brand introduced Lady Levi’s® jeans in 1934. First developed for western women wearing Levi’s® jeans on farms and ranches, the new line was also aimed at women vacationing at dude ranches, working cattle or horse ranches that welcomed guests flocking from eastern states or even Europe.

But over time, it became clear that little beat a pair of 501® jeans.

And so, in 1981, the Levi’s® brand introduced a 501® with a surprise twist. The memorable launch kicked off with a television ad, Travis, that recreated a scene from James Dean’s final film, Giant (1956), where a cowboy stands, removes their hat and shakes out a full head of Farrah Fawcett-styled hair. “For the first time in history,” a woman’s voice says. “Levi’s® shrink-to-fit button-fly 501® jeans are cut especially for women.”

While the original Lady Levi’s® button-fly jeans were made with preshrunk lighter-weight denim and were fitted with a high-waist, the new women’s 501® sat lower on the hips and were made of rigid unwashed denim — the same tough unwashed denim worn by working men for decades since 1873.

To account for shrinkage, women purchased a pair of 501® jeans several sizes bigger than they wore, then they would wash them. The wash-and-wear cycle created a perfect fitting jean. “The only shrinking jean that tailors itself in the wash to fit every curve,” the ad stated. “Like no denim you’ve ever worn.”

In its first year, the women’s 501® launch was so successful that retailers had challenges keeping it in stock. Women, from high school coeds (like myself) to fashionistas, adopted them. By the end of the decade, the women’s 501® hit peak fame when super models Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Tatjana Patitz and Christy Turlington wore them in the iconic photo by Peter Lindbergh onthe cover of British Vogue in January 1990. It was a look that would epitomize the era.

Major changes to the women’s 501® in the last 40 years have included 501® with stretch, custom taper and classic cut-offs. In 1984, we introduced a prewashed 501® jean in a stonewashed finish. More recently, we launched the 501® CT (Customized & Tapered). The original silhouette was custom tapered, crafting the perfect fit for a modern take on the classic 501® jean. A year later, we offered the iconic 501® in stretch and by 2017, we launched the 501® skinny for women with a coveted vintage look. Today, the 501® is still a wardrobe essential for women with timeless appeal.