Past is Prologue: The Levi’s® 501® and the 1990s
It would be hard to overstate the influence of the ‘90s on our present moment. The fashion world can’t get enough of grunge and boy band era inspiration. Nineties reboots and remakes—Saved by the Bell, Beverly Hills 90210, Full House—have crowded our television screens. Some of the most popular sneakers on the market are 1990s-era Air Jordans. And, speaking of Air Jordan, last spring we religiously tuned in for 10-straight Sundays to re-live the ‘90s era Chicago Bulls through ESPN’s The Last Dance. In the 2020s, it’s all about the 1990s.
In many ways, ‘90s nostalgia makes sense. Gen Xers get to relive their youth, while Gen Zers—many of whom weren’t even born yet—get to experience, at least tangentially, what it was like to live in the last analogue age. But the bigger appeal of the ‘90s may lie in its cross pollination of popular culture. It was an era that embraced crossover and experimentation—in music, movies, and style—like no era before it. Punk was mixing with hip-hop, classic rock with pop. A flannel on top with Air Jordan’s down below. And in the middle of it all, both literally and figuratively, the Levi’s® 501®.
While the 501® achieved its iconic status decades before, no era’s style was defined by the 501® quite like the 1990s. Everyone from every corner of the cultural landscape embraced it’s rugged simplicity and casual cool. Snoop Dogg wore his 501®s oversized, like in the music video for “Nuthin But A G Thang.” N.W.A liked their Shrink-to-Fits oversized and raw. Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth wore hers slashed, faded and painted. Or there was the classic light wash, fitted, and high-waisted ‘90s look of Monica and Rachel on Friends. Singer George Michael—who helped usher in a very ‘90s vibe with his music videos for “Freedom! ’90” and “Faith”—liked his medium wash with bleach spots and holes. And even the famous “Supers” of the era—Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, and Tatjana Patitz—donned the classic stonewash 501® for their iconic 1990 British Vogue cover shot by Peter Lindbergh.
Perhaps the best example of the youthful cross cultural appeal of the 501® during the ‘90s was a 1990 Levi’s® commercial campaign shot by Spike Lee called “Button Your Fly.” For the campaign, a toll-free number was issued for young people to call in and say what they did in their 501®s. If they were selected they would get to star in a Spike Lee-directed commercial that would air on MTV and episodes of Beverly Hills 90210 and Arsenio Hall. Levi’s® received more than 800,000 calls for the campaign, and finalists included spelunkers in Texas, a rock concert lighting technician, and a dairy farmer. Spike even joined in on the fun, filming himself in a pair of 501®s running with the bulls in Pamplona.
That the 501® of the ‘90s both crossed and mixed along with so many subcultures was in large part a culmination of the cultural and stylistic approaches to the 501® that came before it. For some it was—like in the ‘50s—a statement of rebellion. A statement against the yuppie/corporate excesses of the 1980s. Think of the Gen X slacker archetype Ethan Hawke played in the films Reality Bites and Before Sunrise. For others, it was—like in the ‘60s and ‘70s—a canvas for customization. Think Rosario Dawson in her 501® cutoffs in the film Kids, or Madonna in her cutoffs on the Girlie Show tour. Or—like in the ‘80s—it was just a way to look cool. Think Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise, or the endlessly celebrated and copied style of ‘90s Winona Ryder.
Ultimately, the 1990s may have given us the purest expression of what makes the Levi’s® 501® so special. A statement, a canvas, a go-to, but also a security blanket. A favorite pair of jeans that you throw on whenever you need to feel both physically and emotionally comfortable. One of the few items in your closet that you can buy brand new or vintage, and will in both cases look better with age. It’s also probably the only thing in your closet, apart from maybe a great leather jacket, that can appear with you in photos across multiple decades.
It’s no wonder, then, that ‘90s style, and especially the Levi’s® 501® ’93 jean, is so popular now. As it’s worn by today’s Originals, the Levi’s® 501® is the perfect embodiment of the cross cultural pollination that began with the 1990s. It’s a jean that represents not only the 20th century history of the 501®, but also the culmination of all that made it essential to popular culture. It’s the art and architecture of youthful rebellion, it’s a canvas for self expression, and it’s a comfortable favorite. It’s—and really there’s no better way to say it—simply the original 501®.
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