Welcome to Brand Breakdown, a series of comprehensive yet easy-to-digest guides to your favorite companies, with insights and information you won’t find on the average About page.
In the beginning, there was one: the 501. In 1873, Levi Strauss and Co. received a patent for blue jeans reinforced with rivets and began producing stronger pants for working men. Over the past century, the brand’s jeans became a favorite of miners, laborers, rock stars and city-dwellers — a quintessential American garment that transcended all social classes. And since the advent of the 501, Levi’s has created dozens of fits for its ever-growing clientele.
Bavarian immigrant Levi Strauss founded the West Coast wing of his brother’s dry goods business in San Francisco in 1853. 20 years later a tailor, Jacob Davis, reached out to Strauss about rivets he fastened to pants to reinforce their pockets. Together, Davis thought, they could file the aforementioned patent for rivet reinforced waist overalls. And, in 1873, Levi’s as we know it was born.
But not quite jeans at large. These kinds of trousers already existed. Levi’s just popularized (and patented) ones with rivets. The reinforcements were originally for workers, who would inevitably work (pun intended) their way through usual pants, creating a market for more durable ones. (Hence the logo, a visual of two horses tied to the pants trying to rip them apart.) By 1890, the patent expired and Levi’s was no longer the style’s exclusive manufacturer. Cue numerical values: first being the 501 (and the 201, an affordable alternative). Though the reasoning for the numbering remains a mystery, Levi’s used it as the foundation for styles to come: the 505, 511 and so on and so forth.
You can learn more about Levi’s history in our dedicated guide to vintage Levi’s jeans.
Terms to Know
Arcuates: These two rows of yellow stitches form arcs on the back pockets of every pair of Levi’s.
Anti-fit: This is essential to Levi’s ethos. Jeans have a slightly looser fit, especially in the top block (see below). “The back of a pair of Levi’s doesn’t really hug a guy’s backside perfectly,” Cheung said.”That is deliberate.” The iconic image of Bruce Springsteen’s posterior on the cover of Born in the USA exemplifies this look.
5-pocket: The foundational design of all blue jeans designed by Levi’s. The 5-pocket design is simple: two front internal pockets, one right-hand coin pocket — originally a “watch pocket” — and two back patch pockets.
Bar Tacks: A series of close machine-made stitches used to reinforce stress points throughout the jeans. Most noticeably, this feature is found on the top corners of the back pockets.
Rivets: Another foundational feature of all Levi’s, copper rivets are placed at a handful of stress points on the jeans.
Red Tab: This small tab is sewn on the outside of the right back pocket. It is one of a few ways Levi’s are instantly recognizable.
Back Leather Patch: No pair of Levi’s is complete without the back right waistband patch showing two horses pulling apart a pair of jeans — a nod to Levi’s strength and durability. For practical purposes, this patch also shows the fit number and size.
Denim: The fabric used to make jeans, this strong cotton twill is dyed with indigo which gives it a distinctive blue shade. In recent years, this all-cotton fabric is woven with a small percentage of stretch material for comfort.
Top Block: The part of the pant that includes the waist and hips. The cut here defines the fit through the thighs: skinny, slim or straight.
Waist: To find a waist size, measure across the top of a pair of jeans (laid flat) and double that number (i.e. a waist measured at 16 inches is tagged as a size 32). The waist measurement is also the first number of the tagged size (i.e. 32 x 34).
Inseam: This is the second size listed on the tag. It refers to the measurement from the crotch to the leg opening. Simply put, it’s the length.
Rise: The rise indicates where the jeans will sit on your waist. When measured, it is the distance between the crotch and the top of the fly. The greater the rise, the higher the jeans will sit on your waist. Typically, slimmer jeans have a lower rise.
Shrink-to-Fit: While only available in a small number of Levi’s 501s, shrink-to-fit jeans are made from denim that has not been pre-shrunk in the factory. Jeans cut from this denim will shrink when soaked and will form to your body. Levi’s claims these jeans will shrink up to 10 percent after the first soak.
What the Levi’s Numbers Mean
All Levi’s jeans follow a similar naming sequence, beginning with the 501. But, the reason for the 501 designation is, as we said, a bit of a mystery. “Around 1890 is when we started calling our copper-riveted waist overalls the 501,” says Jonathan Cheung, the Senior Vice President of Design Innovation at Levi’s. The mystery surrounding the number is largely due to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 that destroyed many of the company’s files. “The 501 was a product identification number, but we don’t know the reason why it was a three-digit number beginning with five,” said Cheung. So now, as an homage to the company’s legacy, all Levi’s fits are denoted by a number: 501, 505 and 511, among others. Each number denotes a cut designed for a specific style and body type.
Throughout the 20th century, Levi’s also made jeans outside of the 500 series. The 200s in the 1920s and 600s in the 1960s were both designed to be more affordable. But for ease of use, this guide will only describe the fits that are made by Levi’s today. Levi’s Vintage Clothing and Levi’s Made and Crafted are not included in this guide.
Levi’s Jeans for Men
Since the release of 501s, Levi’s expanded its offering to include numerous fits for different occasions and lifestyles. Currently, the brand offers well over a dozen silhouettes for men — here’s how to tell them apart.