Mining for 501s
A pair of late 1800s Levi’s jeans have just sold for $76,000 at auction and they’re not in bad nick either. The jeans were found some years in an old abandoned mine which begs the question: are hipsters going to get into mining?
It’s clear from looking at the jeans that they belonged to a miner (along with being found in a mine, of course). They’re covered in candle wax from navigating the dark mines, there’s a stitched-up rip in one of the legs, and they’re pre-belt loop (a 1920s invention) but apart from that they’ve held up well both in design and look.
There’s not many Levi’s wearers I know that need the sort of strength and durability that was crucial for a hard days mining but nonetheless they are still, after all this time, the go-to jean for workers and slackers alike. This is partly due to their reputation, partly their hardiness, and partly because there’s no cooler jeans than Levis.
The uniqueness of each pair was achieved through the use of the original loom in the original factory which rocked against the cherrywood floor when in use. Unfortunately Levi’s are no longer made in the American factory, as is the way with so much of todays fashion. But good denim tells a story: I once wore a pair for around 18 months without washing them. That was mostly a story about booze and bong water. It was only after 18 months they started to fall apart but they went through some things those jeans, I was like a miner for leisure, we went out every night together.
That’s why I always like to buy second-hand Levi’s: you don’t know where they’ve been but you always know they’ve been somewhere. They hold life inside of them which is probably why someone was willing to pay $76,000 for a pair. They’re not just jeans, they’re a slice of history.
This isn’t the first time a price tag like that has been put on a pair of old jeans: a pair of 501s went on eBay for $60,000 in 2005, and in 2018 a mystery buyer paid $100,000 for a pristine pair of 120+ year old Levis. If you happen to find yourself out in the American midwest, maybe it is time to start looking out for abandoned mines; I’m not sure Levis had made it all the way to Cornwall in the 1800s.
The reason I worry about hipsters getting stuck in mines is because of the enduring popularity of Levis and the huge spectrum of people that they appeal to. These were jeans invented specifically for the hard working men of industrial America: railroad workers, miners, ranchers, and construction workers. The riveted pockets were a Levi’s patent and the strength in seams they provided meant it wasn’t long before they were the go-to trouser.
Ever ahead of the times, Levi’s created blue jeans for women by 1934. The women of the American west had long been borrowing relatives Levis as they were doing the same hard ranch work and horse riding that their make counterparts were. This was a time when it was still seen as inappropriate for women to wear trousers out of the house but I’m pretty sure those Western women didn’t really give a shit about all that.
The 1950s was the turning point for jeans as a fashion statement, not just a necessity. As Hollywood stars like James Dean were flying the denim flag for rebellious youth sick of convention and tradition. This is also post-WWII were young soldiers were returning home with PTSD, a lost sense of unity, and mechanical skills. These things were part of the reason for the massive popularity of motorcycle clubs: that brotherhood you had in war could be replicated back home with others just as lost as you.
The durability was perfect for the bikers but a lot of these clubs now gave a criminal element to 501s: the choice of the rebel, the outlaw, and, as the 50s rolled on, the rock n roller. As those first rock n roll musicians started terrifying parents, teachers, and suits, their young fans would want to terrify too. Stage wear became streetwear, jeans were being banned from schools to try and squash any hint of rebellious nature. If you know anything about the 60s you’ll know it didn’t work.
By the time Woodstock came around in 1969 it was awash with blue denim. Two years later Elton was singing about a “blue jean baby, L.A. lady”. While still the choice of the rebel 501s were moving into the rebellious mainstream (if there is such a thing). By the 1980s Springsteen’s Levis covered arse was the cover to Born in the USA. It was also around this time denim became associated also with the LGBT movement. The reaction to the gay community around this time was heightened by the AIDS pandemic and incited violence against those communities. In reaction a unity was formed and once again a band of rebels were justly reactionary to oppression.
Jeans were also the uniform for those rebellious subcultures and genres that followed 30 years after rock n roll: punks, hip hop heads, suede heads, skaters, and skins, they all rocked the 501. The secondhand nature of them means who knows who might’ve been wearing your 501s, 30-odd years ago. Either way, just try not to fall in any mines whilst looking for that perfect pair.