I discovered LVC a couple of years ago, and have learnt so much from these pages - thank you all - that I thought I'd try to give something back.
On a summer holiday with my family in Devon, England in 1966, when I was 12, my older sister said why don’t I spend my holiday money (£5), on a pair of Levi’s. I’d never heard of them, and she proceeded to tell me all about them, saying that they were made in America, were very desirable and I'd be really cool if I had a pair. I wasn't interested, especially as it would mean blowing my holiday money in one go, but she persisted and persuaded me to at least go with her and try a pair on. Looking back, I think I was her guinea-pig!
Off we went to Exmouth, and found a Millets (an 'outdoor' chain which stocked Levi's). At this time 501's were simply known as Levi's - that's all we had available, the other styles starting to come over, at least to the south-west, later. So the shopkeeper measured me up and recommended W28 L36, explaining that they shrunk 2" in the waist and 4" in the leg. I duly tried them on and from then on life was never quite the same. We left the shop, with very little change, if any, from my fiver, with me wearing my new Levi's (with a belt on to hold them up), feeling fabulous, with the labels and my old (Mum-bought) jeans in a bag. I was awestruck by the stiffness and weight, by the two horse patch and the red tab, the smell, the ruggedness and toughness, and the image. They were like no other jeans, or clothes, I'd ever seen; something from another planet, and woke something up in me - a lifelong love of 501's and good denim. Also the beginnings of fashion-consciousness, I suppose.
I took the ticket and flasher into school after the summer holidays, and showed the other kids - it turned out I was the first in our year to own Levi's. The labels got passed round and everyone was impressed. For a brief time I was the cool kid! That year, everyone seemed to be getting Levi's and Wranglers (the Wranglers - I had a pair - were amazing, too, but that's another story...), and a few Lee's. The girls all wore men's 501's and loved them. It was a while 'til women-specific's arrived.
The patch had 502-0117 on them which I think was how the zip-fly version of the 501 was denoted. The only leg lengths available, at least in our area, were 34 and 36. I lived near Gloucester, where we had a Millets and also a gents' outfitter called Leslie Hull, next to the Odeon cinema. He had one wall of 501's, sorted into sizes; zip-fly in one section, button-fly in another. On the opposite wall were Wranglers, either in straight leg or tapered, and otherwise identical. He seemed to stock very little else - such was the demand, I suppose. What an Aladdin's cave. Oh, the smell!
I was fascinated by the way they had a shape of their own, and wore them for ages before washing them, not wanting to spoil things. Again, it was my sister who persuaded me to wash them, reminding me that they were shrink-to-fit and that washing was an essential part of the process. We tucked any excess length inside - no-one wore turn-ups/cuffs on jeans then, apart from the skinheads (de rigeur) and some Mods, always very small cuffs. It was considered very uncool and a bit rustic. As the jeans shrank or you grew, you just let out a bit more length. This was the style.
I needn't have worried - after they were washed they were even stiffer. The shrinkage was unbelievable - they almost bore no resemblance to the raw jeans. I'm sure the guy was right when he said 4" off the length, though I never bothered to measure anything. A lot of leg-twist, too. The two sides of the zip didn't line up any more - they were so buckled with the shrinkage. The solution was to do the zip up before buttoning the top button. We didn't have a washing machine so washing took place in the kitchen sink. The water was quite literally like ink - I could hardly see my hands, and had blue fingernails for a couple of days. Into the top-loading spin drier for rinsing, with the rinse water coming out blue, rinse after rinse. This was the case for the first several washes. No-one in those days was concerned with fussing over raw denim - the concept didn't seem to exist. We were aware of the 'sit in the bath and wear until dry' method, but being so bloody cold and wet here for so much of the time you could have waited months for an opportunity! The dye bled into the white weave and turned it a lovely deep blue. The kitchen looked like an explosion in a dye factory and my Mum freaked out. She must have been intrigued though - shortly after she wore nothing but one-wash 501's, from her mid-forties to when she died aged 85, often with a faded type 3 jacket.
The denim was tough, thick and hairy, and very stiff. There was very much a hand-made feel to the jeans and they needed hard breaking in - they made you waddle when first put on after washing. Later on when my sister bought her own 501's, the kid next door, who worked on a building-site, offered to wear her jeans there to break them in. Levi's were jeans which you beat the hell out of and would still last forever, and which looked better for being faded and beaten up. And which by some alchemy had become a fashion item! They were very much considered to be work wear, and that's what we were told they were - that's how they were sold to us. We never thought of them as anything else - they just happened to look, and be, amazing. The 'flaws' in the weave, the varying stitching, the fact that everyone else's pair looked slightly different to yours reinforced this workwear vibe. It seemed like there was no effort at uniformity in production, which made them really special in our eyes - the aim was simply to make jeans that were extremely well-built and would last and last.
When they were washed they fitted snugly round the bum. After wearing for a while, they'd stretch out and bag a bit. Eventually they'd settle down and were neither tight nor loose - perfect. This wash/wear/stretch/shrink and repeat process was the key to getting a lovely moulded fit - it didn't happen after just one wash.
Every time I put them on, it was a Clark Kent/Superman moment. (It still feels like that today! I wear 47 and 76 LVC repro's, the 76's being the closer denim to my original 66's but with less shrinkage, less stiffness and less pronounced puckering. Still lovely denim, though. My 47's are fading nicely and showing a superb red cast. I've got my first LVC 66's on order, hopefully delivered before Cone runs out).
My jeans had a very pronounced 'flaw' running all the way across the right lower leg, as if the loom had malfunctioned for a few passes. There was a similar defect running the whole width behind the left rear pocket. I loved these imperfections. The stitching was several shades of orange and yellow, and used to vary from pair to pair. I'm sure at least some of it was cotton - the arctuates were often partly worn off jeans, leaving a trail of dark blue behind. I vaguely remember a 501 ad. campaign saying 'Every Pair Is Different'.
I could never quite understand why heavy denim work jeans, riveted and bar tacked, should have such a weak-seeming outer leg seam - where was the strength in that join, especially when compared with contemporary Wranglers - double-stitched inner and outer leg seams? But I guess they knew what they were doing, never a problem.
The rivets were domed, not punch-through, and must have had a high copper content - they used to get covered in verdigris, but the domes stayed polished through wear. The back pockets were quite big - a tad bigger than the LVC 47's, and a very similar shape - maybe a bit more square. I can't remember how shallow or curved the arcs were. The zip had a number on it, which I can't remember. I never even looked for a number on the waist button. There was quite a lot of width to the selvage outer seam, so the 'train-tracks' were quite wide.
The jeans shrank a bit more for the first several washes, but the dye loss became much less pronounced. We used to wash our jeans about once a week. Though beginning to be fashion conscious, we were still very active kids and needed to wash them! The dye seemed to pool in the crevices and creases and stay there. In the high wear areas, the denim would become bone-white - contrasty fades happened without even thinking about it. All the seams would pucker beautifully (all that shrinkage and twisting...), and create some lovely fade patterns - the 'peaks' would become bone-white, with the 'valleys' a lovely deep blue. Generally, they faded really fast, and the colour was really beautiful.
Pretty soon, as I grew I got my second pair, W30 L36 and sold my 28's to a smaller friend. In my early twenties my sister gave me her (men's) 501's, as she didn't wear them any more. They were faded and still totally intact - even the paper patch and the arcs. They were W32 L36, and they fitted me perfectly, no turn-ups, like a W30 L32. The red cast of the denim dye was really apparent and was quite lovely.
I hope this is of interest! All the best.