Levi Strauss bib overalls, ca. 1900 — currently on display at Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. (Levi Strauss & Co. Archives)
Levi Strauss bib overalls, ca. 1900 — currently on display at Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. (Levi Strauss & Co. Archives)

Colorful exhibit shows how Levi’s jeans became an American icon

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Casual Friday workers in blue jeans. Cowboys in blue jeans. Hippies and antiwar protesters in blue jeans. Gay men and lesbians in blue jeans. School kids in blue jeans. And, from an earlier time, lumberjacks and miners in blue jeans.

For 150 years, the images of Americans of multifarious backgrounds and vocations clad in perhaps the most popular garment of all time — denim pants with metal rivets — have captured this country’s imagination. Think James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause,” Marlon Brando in “The Wild One” or John Wayne in almost any one of his Westerns.

The ubiquity of the blue jean as a symbol of American ruggedness, grit and freedom is explored in depth in “Levi Strauss: A History of American Style,” an exhibit opening Feb. 13 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in collaboration with Levi Strauss & Co.

The show is much more than a trip down sartorial lane. It is also an expansive look at one of San Francisco’s most successful businessmen. Levi Strauss — the man, the company and the brand — has long been associated with the philanthropic, entrepreneurial, civic and cultural life of the city, as well as its ties to the Jewish community.

For many years, said Heidi Rabben, the CJM’s senior curator, officials at the museum had talked about mounting a show exploring the many facets of the man and the company that gave rise to the blue jean. Finally, in 2018, she and CJM exhibition designer Justin Limoges began working with Levi Strauss & Co. historian Tracey Panek. They culled relics and memorabilia from the company’s archives that contribute to a broad understanding of the impact that Levi Strauss has made locally, nationally and worldwide.

Custom upcycled denim suit commissioned and worn by Lauren Bacall, ca. 1970s.
Custom upcycled denim suit commissioned and worn by Lauren Bacall, ca. 1970s.

The culmination of their curatorial efforts — an exhibition of some 250 items — includes promotional materials, business documents, correspondence and photographs, along with jeans and other Levi Strauss Western wear. The CJM was able to borrow additional gems, such as a Lauren Bacall suit and a jacket worn by Albert Einstein, from the Levi Strauss archives.

The exhibit is divided into three sections of roughly five decades each. In the first, museumgoers encounter the immigrant behind the jeans. As many historians and authors have recounted, Löb Strauss — he changed his name to Levi as a young adult — was born in 1829 in the Upper Franconia hamlet of Buttenheim, in Bavaria, the youngest son of Hirsch Strauss, a peddler.

Archivist Lynn Downey, Panek’s predecessor, recounts in her book “Levi Strauss: The Man Who Gave Blue Jeans to the World” that while the Strauss family and other Jews in Bavaria were able to make a living and live peaceably enough, they were still subjected to anti-Semitic restrictions codified under the Judenedikt, or Jew decree.

So in 1848, following in the footsteps of his older brothers, the teenage Löb made his way to New York, where his siblings had established a fine dry-goods business. Five years later, soon after the California Gold Rush, Löb, now Levi, made his way to California and established a wholesale dry-goods branch of the family business.

Levi Strauss & Co. counter card, date unknown. (Levi Strauss & Co. Archives)
Levi Strauss & Co. counter card, date unknown. (Levi Strauss & Co. Archives)

Some years later, one of his customers, a Latvian-born Jewish tailor named Jacob Davis, approached him about making long-lasting pants out of durable material with rivets for miners, lumbermen and other workers requiring sturdy outerwear. So were born the blue jeans, which were patented in 1873.

“Jacob Davis had the foresight and Levi Strauss had the vision,” said Downey in a recent interview.

While the trajectory of their success is given its due in the CJM show, much of the exhibit is devoted to the evolution of blue jeans — not so much a focus on the material, said Rabben, because “the product has never really changed,” as on the ways in which jeans, and Levi’s in particular, have figured powerfully in the American psyche.

The exhibit provides a sense of the extent of this power. In addition to the bad-boy and macho images perpetuated most notably in film, the notion of blue jeans as the attire of the make-love-not-war, free speech, hippie, LGBTQ and women’s movements took hold in the 1960s and ’70s. One artifact in the show, a “Leather and Levi’s Only” poster, is a reminder of a time when 501s were de rigueur among gay men frequenting their favorite watering holes. On display are the 501s worn by Harvey Milk, the slain gay rights leader and San Francisco supervisor.

Bing Crosby in Levi's, 1951 (Levi Strauss & Co. Archives)
Bing Crosby in Levi’s, 1951 (Levi Strauss & Co. Archives)

The exhibit also features a portion of the AIDS quilt, stitched with denim, commemorating the lives of Levi Strauss & Co. employees and their loved ones. On view, too, is a denim Torah ark cover commissioned by an employee for his synagogue, San Francisco’s Congregation Sha’ar Zahav.

That Levi Strauss & Co. has long supported LGBTQ rights and, Rabben noted, was one of the first major companies to integrate its work force does not mean that the company and its founder were always on the right side of history. For example, Levi Strauss knuckled under to anti-Chinese sentiment during a dark time in the 1870s known as the Yellow Peril — a fact, she added, that is not glossed over in the exhibit.

“Even Levi Strauss, intimidated by the riots of 1877, discharged all 180 Chinese workers from his factory,” wrote author and historian Fred Rosenbaum in “Cosmopolitans: A Social and Cultural History of the Jews of the San Francisco Bay Area.”

“He was a contradiction,” Downey said. “The accolades he got for his philanthropy,” particularly in the areas of education and Jewish communal welfare, “were truly earned.”

“The West Grew Up in Levi’s” billboard, 1955. (Levi Strauss & Co. Archives)
“The West Grew Up in Levi’s” billboard, 1955. (Levi Strauss & Co. Archives)

At the same time, she said, “he was a hard-ass” capitalist who did not shrink from a contentious issue when his company’s financial well-being was at stake.

Uncle Levi, as he was known to family members, died in 1902 at age 73. He never married, and he left his company in the hands of his nephews. The heirs to his business and estate, including the Stern, Haas, Koshland and Goldman families, are household names in San Francisco, as engaged in Bay Area civil, cultural, philanthropic and Jewish affairs as their forefather, born almost 200 years ago. Some, like attorney and federal prosecutor Daniel Sachs Goldman, who recently served as majority counsel during the House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry, have achieved national prominence.

Levi Strauss, said Rosenbaum, was “an exemplar of an extraordinary cohort” of German Jews, mainly from the same tiny region in Bavaria, who came to San Francisco in the middle of the 19th century “and gained heights they couldn’t imagine” and levels of success that Jews who had settled in other American cities had not. They were able to do so, he said, because they received backing from their families and had enjoyed solid educations back in Germany. They also benefited from a more hospitable and tolerant cultural environment in San Francisco, a pioneer town that remained impervious to the more virulent strains of anti-Semitism.

For Downey, what is most exceptional about the Levi Strauss story, particularly in the current political environment, is “that the most American of garments was created by two immigrants who came to America looking for the American dream … and they found it.”

“Levi Strauss: A History of American Style”

Through Aug. 9 at the CJM. The film “American Jerusalem: Jews and the Making of San Francisco” will be streamed continuously in the exhibit’s galleries. For information about the exhibit and related programs, visit thecjm.org.

Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University, received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer and editor at a variety of nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, he and his husband, Dr. Arnold Friedlander, relocated to Chicago. Robert loves schmoozing, noshing, kvetching, Scrabble, reading and NPR.