There was a flurry of excitement in the world of vintage clothing this past week as news of a recent auction of an early pair of Levi's jeans hit the internet.
Excavated from an abandoned mineshaft in an undisclosed location in the western United States, the incredibly rare pair of 'dungarees' were unearthed by 'denim archaeologist' and author of the seminal Jeans Of The American West, Michael Harris. Dated to the 1880s, they are in a surprisingly intact and wearable condition despite their age, some heavy fading and wax drips from the miners' candles a testament to the hard work they put in during their lifetime. They sold to a vintage clothing dealer from Los Angeles for the princely sum of $76,000.
A jaw dropping figure for sure, yet incredibly the jeans date from less than two decades after tailor and inventor Jacob Davis went into business with dry goods salesman Levi Strauss, selling blue work pants using Davis's patented new rivet technology.
What is perhaps more incredible is how thoroughly current and timeless the garment still looks some 130 years later. Very little has changed to the original design; belt loops and an extra pocket and some more variation in fit, but very little else.
Jeans are North America's great contribution to 20th Century fashion. For while Prep and Ivy style provide a bridge back to the old continent via fraternal ties of Anglo-American style, denim was a uniquely 'New World' phenomenon enjoying a "trickle up" into the wardrobes of men raised far from the fields, farms and mines that they were originally built for. This evolutionary journey, and continued reign over both leisure wear and workwear speaks volumes to how Americans see themselves and the values they aspire to. Jeans are at once ruggedly individualistic, yet nostalgic, they speak of hard work and yet of anti-establishment credentials. They have absorbed every usage and viewpoint thrown at them over fifteen decades or so.
They were first brought to the attention of East Coast Americans as Western-wear souvenirs in the 1930s, when rich city dwellers took vacation time in so-called "Dude Ranches" living a sanitised life of a cowboy for a week or so. From here, Hollywood beckoned and then post-war infamy as the uniform for greasers and campus students at Ivy league Schools.
Their counter-cultural reputation was enhanced by appearances on civil rights marches as protesters aligned themselves with sharecroppers and field workers; as wonderfully illustrated in Jason Jules and Graham Marsh's recent Black Ivy: A Revolt In Style. The workman, the cowboy, the rocker and the rebel archetypes all imbued them with a little of their magic.
That such a humble garment, faded, worn, literally forgotten in a mine for over a century could command such a high price is perhaps a testament to the enduring allure of denim.