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Celebrating the 150th birthday of an American Icon

By Maxine Shapiro, KERA 90.1 business commentator

Dallas, TX – Remember your first pair of blue jeans? Try to think of an article of clothing that's more American than that. I can't. It was 150 years ago when Levi Strauss introduced denim in the San Francisco Gold Rush. I'm Maxine Shapiro with KERA Marketplace Midday.

Levi Strauss was 20 years old when he arrived on the West Coast in 1853, opening a small dry goods store. He sold canvas to use for tents and wagon covers, as well as fancy linens. One story goes - a prospector said to Strauss, "You should have brought pants!" No one had any pants that were strong enough to last. So Levi Strauss took his canvas and made them into pants.

Yet another story continues. In 1872, Strauss received a letter from a Nevada tailor explaining how the tailor used "metal rivets at the points of strain-pocket corners and the base of the fly." Since the tailor did not have enough money for the patent process, he suggested Levi pay and they would take out the patent together, thus giving birth to the blue jean on May 20, 1873.

The fashion industry went bonkers for the blue jean. It was so utterly practical. Levi's, the once generic names for jeans, was first featured for women's fashion in a 1935 Vogue magazine. And it was in World War II when American troops fighting in Europe and Asia first introduced blue jeans abroad. Levi Strauss became an international phenomenon.

Jeans became more than comfort and durable clothing in the 1950's, thanks to Hollywood. Movies like "The Wild One" and "Rebel Without a Cause" turned the jean into a symbolic statement of rebellion. I do believe that through the 60's and early 70's, I wore nothing but blue jeans. But there was an anti-revolt around the corner called "designer jeans." By the mid-70's, Calvin Klein Jeans were taking in $12.5 million per week.

But Levi Strauss and Company, the world's number one maker of brand-name clothing, has fallen out of grace with the in-crowd. Can their new designs help? For nostalgic reasons alone, I hope so. For KERA Marketplace Midday, I'm Maxine Shapiro.


Marketplace Midday Reports air on KERA 90.1 Monday - Friday at 1:04 p.m.

Email Maxine Shapiro about this story.