WGSN Meets Levi’s Jeans Historian Tracey Panek to talk all things denim

Levi’s has always been associated with youth culture, new ideas, rebellion and individuality; and this was never more true than in the 1960s. Iconic styles like Levi’s 501 and 505 jeans were unequivocally linked with this era, becoming symbols for authentic self-expression and a blank canvas for creatives and the anti-establishment movement – for influential musicians such as Jefferson Airplane and the Rolling Stones.

An upcoming exhibition, You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-70at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London, in partnership with Levi’s, will re-visit and explore this exciting period – through the photography, literature, music, design, film, fashion and performance that defined the counterculture generation.

The V&A is the world’s leading museum of art and design with collections unrivalled in their scope and diversity. This new major exhibition, which is open now, brings the culture of rebellion to life as told through music and its influence on fashion, art and politics – radically revolutionising the way people lived their lives.

To find out more about the exhibition and the influence of Levi’s on counter culture, we spoke to Tracey Panek, Levi’s Historian and guardian of the Levi Strauss & Co archives:

What defines that period – the late Sixties – for Levi’s?

The 60s was a huge time for change for the world in general. From the boutiques and galleries of Swinging London, to the Paris student riots and anti-Vietnam protests, to pioneering space exploration, the late 1960s marked an era-defining significance and impact upon life and culture today. From shifts in global civil rights, consumerism and multiculturalism, it was a revolutionary time in its truest sense.

The 60s were not only a defining moment in popular culture but also a period when Levi’s® was at the forefront of the generational and social zeitgeist. For us as a company it was a huge and deliberate change in perception by the public. Previously Levi’s was advertising in newspapers, point of sale in stores, and on billboards. But the focus was Rodeo. Then  by the mid-60s, the brand decided to shift that marketing effort and go for a much younger, more youthful market.


What changes in fashion were occurring for Levi’s during that time?

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 elements in this jean (pictured below) are symbolic in a number of ways, especially customisation. In this era you have the expression of counter culture and the younger generation wanting to create their own style. On this style they created a flare by taking the original seam out and inserted contrast fabric. There was also a practical reason for adding all these patches, that was to patch and repair their favourite wears. This was typical of this period of time. It was all about thrift shop chic at the time. That generation didn’t want to worry about working a 40 hour week, they didn’t want to save their money for branded clothes so they would head to the thrift shop by themselves and buy blue jeans and to make them last longer they’d patch them up. Functional and stylish.


Why was the 505 a defining fit for the era?

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. The product of the ‘coming of age blue jean’, because this is the first time Levi’s used sanforized, pre-shrunk denim, and a switch from the word overalls to see the company use jeans. The style is 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. And what’s interesting about this is when Levi’s began to expand. Pre WWII Levi’s were mainly in the Wild Wild West, and post WWII we began to expand across the United States and began selling abroad. 1967 was also the year of the Summer of Love and the height of counter-culture in San Francisco.


How did you shift your advertisements to tap this youth market?

The period was the first time that the word “jean” began showing up. This was the terminology the youth were using to describe our pants. 1967 was also the first time when Levi’s began creating and broadcasting our earliest radio adverts for the company. When we wanted to go for a younger market, one of the ways to get through to them was to do it through music. So in ’67, the year we introduced this jean we famously worked with music producer Bill Graham, and the up-and-coming San Fran music band Jefferson Aeroplane. We worked with them to create a 6-month contract and in a one night famous recording session, the band recorded a dozen tracks and Levi’s chooses 5 of them and they air on the radio. One of their famous pieces was called “White Levi’s”.


What other new products were you releasing during that time?

By 1967 we had introduced our Orange Tab line. It was an important line for Levi’s because it was the first time we’d changed the red tab and it was also the first time Levi’s became experimental with their silhouettes and it was cheaper to purchase. It is this line where we had crazy pocket designs, super slim shapes like the 606 as well as and the first bootcut and bell bottom shapes. This was a complete switch with a focus on youth culture.


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.

What other items can we expect to see in the exhibition? 

Along with the customised 505, we have an orange tab 606, and 646, along with a pair of 60s 501, and a 1950s Levi’s leather jacket that tell the story of evolution.

You Say You Want a Revolution? Rebels & Records 1966 – 1970 is open at the V&A now.

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