What is the Levi's 501 Secret Sauce?
The classic, ever-imitated jean is celebrating its 150th anniversary. Why it's still such a beloved name in denim.
**Welcome to 5 Things’ first partnership. And first non-Sunday newsletter, a bonus! Big thank you to Levi’s who believes in this community and is sponsoring today’s special edition, all about the 501. Hope you love it!**
Tomorrow Levi’s celebrates the 150th anniversary of when they received the patent to rivet pants. Literally, they patented using copper rivets to hold pants together. This was a novel idea at one point! Considering the role denim plays in our wardrobes today, I don’t think it’s too far off to say it’s one of the most important fashion patents of all time (maybe that and the zipper.)
Throughout the brand’s history “Lot 501” was used to denote the brand’s highest quality jean - first identified as such in 1890 (with the Lady Levi’s version launching in 1934). And while the model has changed through the decades, “501” has remained a stand-in symbol for cool, effortless and most importantly, FUNCTIONAL style. They’ve been worn by counterculture kids (Woodstock!), celebrities that run the gamut (Bob Dylan! Pamela Anderson!) and the closest thing consumer culture has to a saint: Steve Jobs.
Why These Jeans
The 501 started as a work pant, or more accurately a “waist overall” which I think is why I’m so drawn to them. I LOVE clothes, we all know that. But I also love figuring out their WHY. It’s so important to look at the original version of something to get a better grasp on both design in general, and what makes something GOOD. Has it stood the test of time? How has it evolved? It’s helpful to know this history to pinpoint what references designers are gravitating toward now. (It makes you a better seasonal and vintage shopper toboot!) In the case of the 501, you would be hard pressed to find a denim company without this style rotating through their internal mood boards. And a testament to its ingenuity, the 501 is that rare case where the original is still just as accessible as the spawn they’ve inspired.
But why these jeans now, when there are so many options out there? I tend to come back to the idea of balance (and authenticity.) When it comes to putting yourself together, the oomph element usually needs something to reign it in. Enter simple, straightforward denim. I feel similarly about classic Vans and Adidas in place of designer sneakers, especially when pairing back to something like Chanel or Bottega. Or a simple leather belt with a brass buckle vs. a logofied version. Are you starting to see a pattern? 501s make an outfit breathe. They give the wearer a sense of grounded-ness, even when (especially when) pairing them with red Gucci heels with a rhinestoned bug at the toe.
Today, I’m going to break down Levis’ current 501 fits. How to shop for them, how to choose your sizing and inseam, what to make of a button fly, and of course, show you a bunch of cute outfits to take your jeans into summer next week.
The 501 Original
Today, a 501 is not just a solitary jean but a category. There are multiple fits and many, many washes. We won’t talk about ALL of them today, but just my idea of a perfect edit. We will start with the “Original” because this is my staple jean. It is the jean I most recommend to friends and clients. It will not fail you. At around $100 bucks, its really the best bang for your buck (and butt) out there. I mostly recommend the classic blue wash. It fades slowly. You don’t even notice it happening and then three years later you find a patina and a slight hem fray that you thought wasn’t possible to actually do yourself.
The Original (and every jean we will discuss here today) is 100% cotton. 100% cotton denim is just better. I’m sorry, it just is. It molds to your body better and holds your bum snugger. It’s less comfortable at first, but the work reaps rewards.
If this seems like way too much work, breathe easy, we are going to talk about buying your 501 originals now in TWO SIZES. Your everyday, regular sized jean which should sit loose enough to touch you but not dig in. And a size too small to make you feel invincible in the evenings.
Wearing my proper size
Everything you will see in this newsletter is a size 26 EXCEPT one pair which we discuss below. You will see that the fits are all very different too. This way you have a sense of scale reading throughout, and can see how you want to size your own.
We are going to start with my tried and true 501s that I have had for about five years, washed and dried countless times and I would wear on a long haul flight (ok, maybe that is an exaggeration, but you get what I mean.) They are not special collector’s items, or purchased pre-loved or reworked vintage. Just straight up, $98 501s from the website.
Wearing a size too small AKA YOUR GOING OUT JEANS
I once read an interview with a very stylish (non sample sized, might I add) stylist about how when she gets new Levis she wants them to hurt her hipbones, that’s how tight they should be. I never thought about it that way, and its a bit insane, but she does always look spectacular in jeans and a blazer. I decided to try it out and ordered a 25 (!!!) in the 501 original. I had to lay down to button them (Ala Brenda’s roommate in her short stint at the University of Minnesota, IYKYK). But with a heel and a little jacket I feel like a million bucks in these. Do I look like I’m standing taller in these photos, I feel like I am!
The 501 “90s” Fit
You know that TikTok? The one that breaks it down to tell you that influencers are just wearing vintage Levis one size too big and its “not that hard”? LOLLLLL. And yes, if you want to go the vintage route and try a bunch of pairs til you get your fit, I will not stop you. But the next best thing to a patina that you worked hard for…is a patina you didn’t have to work for at all! I digress.
Levi’s recently launched the 90s fit. It is designed on the same “501 block” as the original but tweaked to meet current trend demands. In designer lingo, a block is basically a framework. So all 501s start on the same base and then tweaks are made as styles change. This specific fit is a bit slouchier, with a wider leg opening, in line with what we have been talking about in our denim coverage here at 5 Things. But they are still a size 26, so compare the difference with 501 originals in the section above. Below, a few looks styled back to the 501 90s.
This pair is a 26 waist by 32 inseam. I traditionally wear a 29 or 30 inch inseam so you can see how much volume two inches adds here, a lot! For all you tall folks, these will fall just right on you to skim the shoe! That was a definite pain point in the baggy jeans newsletter a few weeks back. So I’m thrilled to offer something to you leggy bunch here.
If you would rather a totally straight cut that doesn’t pool, do not fear. There there is also a 30 inch inseam in this style. I am definitely more naturally comfortable in this length but the cuffing above is growing on me, and I think I’ll actually cuff with sandals often this summer.
White Jeans: A Love/Hate Story
As an Upper East Sider, white jeans can be very tricky. They’re a bit too loved up here so the natural contrarian in me wants to banish them. But I’ve leaned in of late…which you all know from last month. So some rules I’ve adopted as I’ve engaged in white-jean-aism. Size up, a general rule. A baggy white jean will always look better than a too snug one. Someone once told me that Carolyn Murphy said (again…no idea if this is true) she buys all her clothes a size too big to make them look expensive. Where do I even hear these things!? It is brilliant nonetheless. No better place to start than with your whites. ALSO, I prefer a raw edge on white jeans, because the style can veer TOO classic, especially with all my preppy polos. And finally, your whites don’t always have to match. This jean is a teensy bit off-white and my t-shirt a very crisp white. I like how nonchalant a bit of a messy white combo looks. It is summertime after all, and we all want to seem easy breezy.
The Button Fly
This is a pain point for some of you, I know. But I promise, it becomes second nature. A button fly really will give you a better look when sitting, or when you start to feel the squeeze. Zippers tend to pull at the placket, with no natural breaks to let fabric gather. But a button fly partitions out the tension. Just…trust me on this one. Button fliers unite!
And with this, you’ve reached the end of today’s denim lesson. If you want to read more about fits, I discovered this blog post on the Levi’s site while researching this story and it does a very thorough job of explaining. Hope you learned something new today! Or better yet, just enjoyed yourself here! Tell me about your first 501 memory in the comments. Or how you style yours now. I can’t wait to hear! <3
P.P.S. STEVE JOBS’ LEVI’S!!!!!
ok. really now. THE END.
NOTE: I use affiliate links when applicable which means I may get a small commission from things you buy (no cost to you!) Thank you for supporting my work and trusting me with your shopping! I do not take it lightly.
Becky... I once had a textile design professor at FIT who told me “every successful person in this industry has one thing in common- they are mind readers.” I am not kidding, every time I think “Hmm, I really want to buy XYZ but not sure how to decide between all the million choices out there” your NEXT newsletter addresses my question. I make a schedule of one clothing category each month to spend money on, and this month was “501? Finally figure it out?” THANK YOU! Not all hero’s wear capes!
My first 501s were a Christmas present from my boyfriend in 1987… he had gone up to London specially, to Camden market, and searched for the perfect vintage pair for me. They fitted like they were made for me, soft and beautifully faded.
Reader, I married him!