The Fashion Frontier

By Anh-Minh Le

The Contemporary Jewish Museum’s new show celebrates the legacy of Levi Strauss

The Bay Area has long been a hub of innovation — going back much earlier than the advent of silicon chips, search engines and social media. In 1873, Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis obtained a patent that led to the creation of blue jeans: work trousers reinforced with metal rivets. Davis was a tailor in Reno, Nevada, and San Francisco-based businessman Strauss his fabric supplier. Their “waist overalls” were an immediate hit among miners, lumberjacks, railroad engineers and farmers who wore them over their pants or long underwear. Decades after their death — Strauss had retired from the day-to-day operations by the time he died in 1902, while Davis continued to oversee production for Levi Strauss & Co. in San Francisco until he passed away in 1908 — what they pioneered had become an icon of American culture.

This month, the Contemporary Jewish Museum opens a comprehensive exhibition detailing the company’s trajectory. The CJM’s Heidi Rabben and Justin Limoges co-curated the show, collaborating with Levi Strauss & Co. historian Tracey Panek “to find the right items from the archives that help illustrate different stories,” says Rabben. With upward of 250 objects— most culled from Levi’s trove of apparel and ephemera, along with a small number loaned from other organizations —Levi Strauss: A History of American Style is the largest public display to date of the clothier’s artifacts.

A Lauren Bacall Levi Strauss suit, circa 1970.

The presentation will highlight a couple of key narratives. “There’s the individual Levi Strauss — his path originally from Bavaria in Germany to New York first and then to San Francisco, arriving towards the end of the Gold Rush — and the ways in which his story is the quintessential American Dream immigrant success story,” says Rabben. For many Jews who immigrated from Europe in the 1800s, she adds, “when they came over to the United States, with the different opportunities that lay in front of them, it was a blank slate — in California and in San Francisco in particular.”

The exhibition will also “explore the birth of the blue jean itself,” she says. With 147 years of history to cover, not surprisingly, there’s a lot to take in — starting with a pair of well-preserved 501s from the 1890s. “Levi Strauss & Co. and the Levi’s brand really has evolved over time,” says Panek. “The company has had this incredible staying power.” Indeed, in the first half of the 20th century, Levi’s went from blue-collar uniform to western wear. Soon, Hollywood’s sartorial influence took hold. Jeans, donned by Marlon Brando in The Wild One and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, came to symbolize rebellion. In the ’60s and ’70s, they were favored by hippies and rockers alike. (According to Rabben, it was Peggy Caserta, a close friend of Janis Joplin, who suggested that Levi’s produce bell-bottoms.)

The CJM will feature ensembles that draped famous musicians (Madonna), politicians (Harvey Milk) and artists (Andy Warhol). Also on view will be pieces from Levi’s collaboration with French designer Jean Paul Gaultier as well as a ruffled gown studded with copper rivets by local couturier Mr. David (aka Glamamore, his drag persona). It’s not all fashion specimens, though. There’s a letter that Strauss penned and a minute book with handwritten notes from company meetings, both from the 1800s. There’s a 142-by-144-inch panel from the AIDS Memorial Quilt and a 174-by-98-inch denim flag conceived in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, both created by Levi’s employees.

Levi’s collaboration with Nike Air Jordan.

With a subject matter that is at once “universal and unique,” Rabben anticipates Levi Strauss appealing to a vast audience. “The show celebrates the beauty of the simplicity of the initial design and the way it’s been personalized and manipulated through the years,” she says. Case in point: the jeans embellished by a man imprisoned in Northern California. Over the course of 33 years, using felt-tip and ballpoint pens, he drew all over the denim, from seam to seam. Panek notes another customized pair: Eva Orsini’s “Watergate” jeans — complete with stars, stripes and silhouettes of key figures in the scandal — a winner of the Levi’s Denim Art Contest that debuted in 1973. “One of the remarkable things is the way Levi’s has become interwoven with so many important cultural moments,” says Panek. “It has really come to embody the energy and events of our time.”

February 13: Levi Strauss: A History of American Style at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. A members-only opening celebration will be held on February 12. The exhibition opens to the public February 13 and runs through August 9. 736 Mission St., San Francisco.

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