Blue Jean Baby
For Levi's historian Lynn Downey, it's all in the jeans.
Courtesy Levi Strauss & Co.
Lynn Downey has one of the coolest jobs in the West: She’s the historian for Levi Strauss & Co. in San Francisco. Outside the company’s world headquarters lies the city where Levi Strauss started his wholesale dry goods business in 1853. Inside are the archives, where Downey oversees some 7,500 garments; 2,500 photographs; and hundreds of posters, marketing materials, and documents. Among the most special items in the archives: a replica of a denim tuxedo jacket made for Bing Crosby in 1951, a jacket and a pair of jeans signed by The Rolling Stones, and a pair of jeans from 1938 that once towed a car. Cowboys & Indians talked to author-archivist Downey about historic denim and the perennial appeal of jeans.
Cowboys & Indians: What, exactly, does a historian for a blue jeans company do?
Lynn Downey: I was hired in 1989 to organize the existing collection of historical materials and — here’s the best part — to acquire the clothing, advertising, and artifacts that we were missing. One big black hole is pre-1906: We lost nearly everything in the [San Francisco] earthquake and fire of that year. Essentially, I also shop for my job.
C&I: Besides shopping, what else is on your daily agenda?
Downey: In a typical day, I will answer a lot of e-mails from employees and managers in Levi Strauss & Co. offices around the world; these will be questions about our history, the design of our garments, our marketing, etc. I also work with the actual materials in the archives for my own research. We have everything from clothing to marketing materials to photos, posters, artifacts, and historical documents. In a typical day, I can handle everything from the oldest pair of jeans in the world — worth nearly $150,000 — to a magazine printed last week. I might spend some time shopping for Levi’s jeans on eBay, and I might also do an interview with a journalist like you!
C&I: What’s the strangest request you’ve ever received?
Downey: To decipher the manufacture date of a pair of Levi’s jeans found on human remains, so that law enforcement agencies could narrow a missing-person search.
C&I: Is there a special denim item dear to your heart?
Downey: Hmm, that’s like asking a mother to name her favorite child! One of my favorites is a pair that belonged to an Arizona miner named Homer Campbell. He bought the jeans in Wickenburg, Arizona, in 1917 and then sent them back to us in 1920 as he said they hadn’t held up like the Levi’s he’d been wearing for 30 years. Turned out what didn’t hold up was the denim padding he had covered the jeans with; being a hard-rock miner he needed some extra protection. In 2003, I went to Arizona to find Homer’s grave and got lost in the mountains trying to find the abandoned cemetery he was buried in. I finally found it, and found Homer’s grave, so I took a photo of his pants on his grave. Then I almost passed out and nearly died of heatstroke, as it was 114 degrees on that July day. Yep, I’ll go anywhere for history.
C&I: How about the most valuable?
Downey: We have two examples of the “XX” — the original name for the 501 jean. They both date to 1879 and are each worth around $150,000. That’s because they represent the very first jeans. The first of anything is always priceless, but for insurance purposes we needed to put a figure on their value, so I had an independent appraiser give me the number.
C&I: What’s the story behind Bing Crosby’s denim tuxedo jacket?
Downey: In 1951 Bing Crosby was in Canada on a hunting trip with a friend. They were dressed head to toe in Levi’s jeans and jackets, and when they tried to get a hotel room they were refused, because denim was disreputable. Luckily, the bellhop recognized Bing and the men were given a room. Then Bing told his neighbors in Elko, Nevada, where he had a ranch, what had happened, and they contacted the company with the story. Levi Strauss & Co. made him a denim tuxedo jacket and presented it to him at the 1951 Silver State Stampede in Elko. The Crosby family has the original, and we have the contemporary copies made in that year, which were used as exhibits and sales tools.
C&I: Who is the most famous Levi’s wearer?
Downey: One was Jack Kerouac, who mentions Levi’s jeans in On the Road and who also wore them. It depends on your definition of famous. If you’re talking rock musicians, it’s Bruce Springsteen. Movie cowboys: Gary Cooper and John Wayne. Today, famous Levi’s wearers include Anderson Cooper, Jake Gyllenhaal, Matthew McConaughey, Vince Vaughn. And women, too: Jennifer Hudson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jessica Alba, and Julia Roberts wear Levi’s jeans.
C&I: Who helped popularize the brand?
Downey: Probably the bad boys of the 1950s. When Marlon Brando stepped off his motorcycle in The Wild One, every boy in America wanted to wear Levi’s jeans.