Streamlined and DIY in the 1970s and ‘80s

May 2021

Three men wearing hats, gold chains, and Levi 501 jeans.Three men wearing hats, gold chains, and Levi 501 jeans.

If the 1960s painted with a paint brush, the 1970s did it with a magic marker. The emergence of punk in the mid-1970s took the experimentation of the “turn on, tune in, and drop out” era and democratized it with safety pins and photocopied ‘zines. The rise of hip-hop, too, ushered in a new era of utilitarian DIY style in art, music, and fashion that would set the tone for the next two decades.

The drama of this transition can hardly be overstated. In 1973, Lynyrd Skynyrd released “Freebird,” a soaring Southern Rock anthem that, on the album version, clocked in at just over nine minutes (the final 4:13 of which is nothing but instrumental and guitar solo). A year later, the Ramones played their first live show (-ish, as some call it a rehearsal) at Performance Studios on East 20th St. in Manhattan. No song clocked in at more than two minutes. The writing was on the wall—raw, rough, and streamlined was the sound, and look, of the future.

Debbie Hell wearing 501 jeansDebbie Hell wearing 501 jeans

For the Levi’s® 501®, this meant a move away from the maximalism of flaring, fringe, and psychedelic colors of Woodstock, and a move towards the fitted, washed out, worn out—and in many cases torn up—look of Patti Smith and her downtown cohort. As Legs McNeil, the co-founder of Punk magazine and co-author of Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk said, it was “about advocating kids to not wait to be told what to do, but make life up for themselves, it was about trying to get people to use their imaginations again, it was about not being perfect, it was about saying it was okay to be amateurish and funny, that real creativity came out of making a mess.”

This was the era of DIY, do what you want, perfection through imperfection. It was finding a beat up pair of 501®s at the flea market and slashing them up. It was safety pins and magic markers as accessories. It was expressing yourself anyway you can, no matter your background or where you came from. And the 501®—the most democratic piece of clothing in existence—was at the center of it all. What began as a statement of rebellion in the 1950s, became the architecture of rebellion in the 1970s and ‘80s. The 501® was the canvas on which the young declared their intentions.

The effect of this was felt far and wide. Along with downtown denizens like Debbie Harry and Richard Hell, the fitted, faded, and sometimes slashed up 501® was cropping up on everyone from Ronnie Wood, to Marvin Gaye, to Cher. Andy Warhol famously donned 501®s in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and the fitted, cut-off, and faded style became a common sight among the San Francisco gay community.

A man wearing 501 jeans walking across the streetA man wearing 501 jeans walking across the street

In Jamaica, the same pioneers who brought R&B and jazz to Kingston in the ‘50s and ‘60s also brought literal barrels full of American clothing, including Levi’s® denim. This ensured that the 501® was a staple of the reggae and dancehall cultures that emerged in the 1970s. Hip-hop, too, quickly embraced the iconic jean. As a new form coming up against the influence of disco, hip-hop pioneers of the ‘70s like DJ Cool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and the Rock Steady Crew found a utilitarian sense of rebellion in a well worn pair of 501®s.

As punk gave way to post punk, and then to New Wave, the DIY ethos of the late ‘70s largely disappeared, replaced by bright colors, asymmetrical cuts, and big shoulders. But the Levi’s® 501® remained a mainstay, as well as a customizable staple. Trickling down from the twin cultural towers of punk and hip-hop, the 501® crossed nearly every sub-cultural boundary. Run DMC paired them with shell toe Adidas. The Stone Roses wore 501®s in the burgeoning Manchester scene, as did another famous Manchester native, Morrissey. And time traveling suburban teenager Marty McFly wore his 501®s in exactly the same manner Beverly Hills-by-way-of-Detroit cop Axel Foley—fitted, faded, and with a classic pair of white leather sneakers.

Throughout this era, the Levi’s® 501® served as a bridge, a connecting rod that suited every style and aesthetic. No matter your age, no matter your musical taste, no matter your 9-5 , the Levi’s® 501® was a staple of every wardrobe. Whether worn low key and cool like Axel Foley, faded and classic like Bruce Springsteen, or slashed nearly into oblivion like Joey Ramone, the 501® of the ‘70s and ‘80s was truly the jean created for everyone.

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