Levi Strauss: A History of American Style, at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco through Aug. 9, 2020, is several museum shows in one. It’s about the history of jeans as a marker of American identity. It’s about the evolution of casual fashion. It’s about San Francisco’s Jewish immigrant history. It’s about the power of advertising and marketing. And it’s about the problematic aspects of celebrating a lot of these things.
Levi Strauss is the largest-ever exhibition of material from the company’s extensive archives. The objects themselves are fascinating and delightful: a periwinkle-blue 1974 AMC Gremlin upholstered entirely in Levi’s denim (including a driver’s side pocket to keep money for tolls in); gorgeous denim-inflected Torah covers incorporating nods to San Francisco, Jewish, and gay history; outfits worn by Beyonce (she’s tiny!), Madonna (she’s even tinier!), Jake Gyllenhaal, Spike Lee, and Harvey Milk; a series of amusingly arch letters from Cary Grant to a Levi’s VP “cadging” (Grant’s word!) freebies; a section of the AIDS Memorial Quilt made by Levi’s employees; a fabulous and flouncy denim ball gown for a San Francisco drag queen; Albert Einstein’s well-worn and very chic Levi’s leather jacket (which he wore on the cover of Time magazine); a pair of remarkably well-preserved Levi’s from 1890 that look absolutely fashionable today; rodeo clown costumes and creepy cowboy marionettes. Snippets of 13 movies are shown, depicting the essential American-ness of Levi’s: The Wild One (Marlon Brando seriously juicy in his 501s, who knew?), The Misfits (Marilyn Monroe filled out her Levi’s almost as well as Brando!), American Graffiti, The Outsiders, The Breakfast Club (ah, Bender, symbol of badass ’80s teen anti-authoritarianism despite being played by the private-school-educated son of two Jewish lawyers), Back to the Future, La Bamba, Thelma and Louise, Wayne’s World (with bonus Laverne & Shirley reference, since the clip depicts Wayne & Garth reenacting the opening credits of the TV show), Reality Bites, Selena, Boys Don’t Cry, and Brokeback Mountain. TV monitors display four decades of rapid-fire Levi’s advertising.
The show opens with Strauss’ own classic Jewish immigrant success story. Löb Strauss was born in Bavaria, the youngest of seven kids, in 1829. To escape poverty and anti-Semitism, his widowed mother moved with him and his sister to New York City, where some of his older siblings had already established a dry-goods business. Löb became Levi and in 1853, with the Gold Rush underway, moved west. He became an American citizen, expanded the family business, and in 1873, “struck gold—blue gold, that is,” as the museum’s curatorial text puts it. With Jacob Davis, a Latvian Jewish immigrant tailor, he patented riveted denim work pants. (Denim pants already existed—the origin of the word “denim” is “de Nîmes,” and the origin of “jeans” is “Genoa,” reflecting two cities the fabric originally hailed from—but the rivets, which added toughness and durability, were new.) The patent (No. 139,121, issued May 20, 1873) is in the show. Davis sold his interest back to Levi Strauss & Co. sometime around the turn of the century. Fun fact: His descendants now run Ben Davis Clothing.
Several early pairs of Levi’s jeans—originally called “waist overalls”—are in the exhibit. The pair from 1890 has a single right back pocket (the left back pocket was added in 1901), baggy legs (as workwear, they were probably worn over another set of pants), and a buckled cinched back that looks extremely hipster. There’s a faint circle in the right front inner pocket, reflecting its original purpose: to hold a pocket watch.
Word of Levi Strauss’ riveted pants’ durability quickly spread, and Strauss—already a financial success and civic leader—got even richer. By the time of his death in 1902, he was a major supporter of local charities. There’s a handwritten chit in the show from Strauss to Temple Emanu-El, dated Nov. 9, 1892, for $15,000; that’s the equivalent of over $425,000 today. Strauss also paid for half the cost of renovating the Jewish cemetery in his hometown in Bavaria, set up an orphanage in San Francisco, helped establish a kindergarten, funded over two dozen scholarships at Berkeley (half of which went to women students), served on the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, and supported a school for the deaf. His front-page obituary, depicting a round-faced, prosperous- and merry-looking man, noted that he was “a liberal supporter of others not of his own creed.”
In an interview with Tablet, curator Heidi Rabben said, “You can see from the phrasing of the obituary that he was a merchant and a philanthropist in equal measure. The Jewish values of tikkun olam and tzedakah informed his entire life. He didn’t have kids of his own, but he was known as Uncle Levi.”
The exhibit introduces the viewer to the San Francisco of Strauss’ day—including photos of his synagogue, factories, and skyline pre- and post-1906 earthquake—before pivoting to explore the brand marketing at which the company truly excelled. Though Levi Strauss began with rugged workwear designed for miners and cowboys, the company quickly figured out that the cowboy mythos in particular appealed to Americans who’d never roped a steer in their lives. As America began devouring Westerns at the movies and in pulp fiction, the company began promoting rodeos and whipping up ads stating that “genuine Levi’s® are worn by all cowboys.”
Rabben told me: “Of course, the Hollywood depiction of cowboys is not reality. I grew up in California and did the mandatory fourth-grade curriculum where we learned California history, and I certainly didn’t learn about the problematic aspects of western expansion. But in this show we want to pause and think about that, about the impact on indigenous people.” And, she added, “Much of the Hollywood cowboy mythos isn’t actually American at all. It’s based on the Mexican vaquero.” (Indeed, the word “buckaroo” comes from vaquero.)
For better and worse, the company also capitalized on women’s activism, creating Freedom-Alls in 1918. A lightweight cotton tunic over balloon pants, Freedom-Alls look like two pieces but are basically a jumpsuit. So au courant! So Phoebe Waller-Bridge! Interestingly, the curatorial text links Freedom-Alls to the “liberty language” of the Great War, but not to the fight for suffrage and equal rights occurring at the same time. Later, in 1934, Levi Strauss introduced Lady Levi’s, “tailored to fit and look neat and trim on the feminine figure.” Rabben pointed to an ad for Lady Levi’s in the exhibit, showing a beautiful woman posing boldly and glamorously in a field. “You can see she’s not shown raising kids; she’s not working to support her family; she’s allowed to spend time on her own and dress for her own comfort.” There’s a pair of Lady Levi’s in the show—still looking stylish, just as the 1890 jeans do—bought by one Harriet Atwood at Best & Co on Fifth Avenue in New York City. “Not exactly cowboy territory,” Rabben pointed out.
The company’s shift in the 1950s away from cowboy symbolism toward antihero symbolism was pretty savvy. Levi’s began promoting itself as the garb of bikers, hippies, rockers, rappers, gay rights activists … figures very unlike the super-white, super-hetero, clean-cut, all-American cowboy. The displays turn to fan-decorated psychedelic bell-bottoms, stagewear worn by celebrities, a pair of white jeans completely covered in doodles made in black pen by a prisoner over the course of a 30-year sentence.
Though Levi Strauss & Co was forward thinking in some ways (for instance, as far back as the 1920s, its workforce was racially integrated, uncommon for the time), in others, well, not so much. Strauss himself had a “blind spot,” the curatorial text notes, about Chinese people. Chinese laborers had built the states’ railroads and done difficult low-wage work no one else wanted, but when recession hit in the 1870s, white Californians blamed Chinese immigrants. Bowing to the xenophobia of the age, Strauss dismissed all his Chinese workers—over 100 people. “It’s not a good thing,” Rabben said, “but it’s important that it be in the show.” The wall text quotes historian Fred Rosenbaum’s book Cosmopolitans: A Social and Cultural History of the Jews of the San Francisco Bay Area: “The Jews—despite their own suffering in Europe and usually strong record of defending the disadvantaged—evidenced no more sensitivity to the persecution of Asians than did other white Californians.”
(Shortly before his death, Strauss reversed himself. He co-signed a letter to the Senate opposing renewal of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, calling it “a gross injustice.” The act passed anyway, preventing an entire ethnic group from entering the United States and remaining the law until it was repealed by FDR in 1943.)
The company always treated its LGBT employees with respect and dignity, however. It donated significant funds to fight “the gay cancer” before the disease was even given the name AIDS, and it committed to creating a tolerant workplace.
One display in the show is on loan from Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, San Francisco’s first LGBT synagogue. In 2005, the shul needed new Torah covers; one congregant, Avi Goldberg, worked at Levi Strauss & Co. He reached out to his coworkers, who created new Torah covers for Sha’ar Zahav by hand. They incorporated design elements from a Bavarian Torah cover, in tribute to Levi Strauss’ origins as well as other early San Franciscan Jewish immigrants; dark denim from Cone (originally Cohn) Mills in North Carolina, which supplied fabric for the original 501s; the familiar LGBT symbol of a rainbow. An appliqued Star of David, a dove, and a pomegranate, all in pale denim, are made from a pair of 1977 jeans, commemorating the year Sha’ar Zahav was founded. Flowers were sewn from another Levi Strauss employee’s collection of bandanas gathered over many years of attending gay rodeos, a nod to another aspect of the LGBT history of the West. “As most of their work is now done on computers … the design team rarely gets the chance to actually sew anymore,” the wall text notes. “This project put them in touch with their roots as seamstresses and tailors, typically Jewish trades at the time Levi Strauss settled in San Francisco.”
The history of Levi’s is also the history of America, in its creative, entrepreneurial, spirited glory and in its racist, colonialist darkness. The juxtapositions make for a lively museum visit.
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Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.