From the Archives: Pioneers in Women’s Wear

Levi Strauss & Co. got its start as a manufacturer in 1873, when the company created the first blue jeans. These jeans were made specifically for the working man. Though some young girls on Western ranches wore children’s versions of the bib overalls the company made, the line offered no products specifically for adult women.

But this all changed in 1918, the year LS&CO. expanded their assortment to include women’s wear. Women were beginning to play larger roles in society–especially in the American West, where the company sold its clothing and dry goods. For LS&CO., this presented the opportunity to meet the needs of an emerging market.

The first items the company produced were called “Freedom-Alls,” one-piece garments that were well-suited for “Work or Recreation.” Freedom-Alls resembled a belted tunic paired with harem pants, or “trousers,” which buckled near the ankle and were often worn with boots. There were two versions: one in “Heavy Khaki” and the other in a light weight cotton. The latter trousers had alternating white and colorful stripes, and were paired with a matching tunic in shades of solid blue, pink, or green.

The product’s name is very revealing of the events that were shaping the times. America had entered World War I the previous year, so the use of the word “Freedom” signified the nation’s pride, strength, and solidarity. The word also referred to the physical freedom of movement women enjoyed while they were wearing Freedom-Alls.

Print advertising showed women doing both housework (seen as more “traditional”) and some form of physical activity, like hiking (not so traditional). Western women, at the time, had begun to take advantage of the wide, open spaces of the frontier: women drove cars, wandered through the newly founded National Parks, and took photographs. LS&CO. knew this, and so created clothing that liberated–rather than restricted–these these new, adventurous female consumers.

LS&CO. patented the design of Freedom-Alls, but the products didn’t catch on. By 1919, the items had disappeared from company catalogs and price lists. A rare example of Freedom-Alls lives at the LS&CO. Archives: a vintage clothing dealer discovered these blue and white striped trousers in a container of used clothing she bought, sight unseen.

Someday, I hope to find them in pink.

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FROM THE ARCHIVES

Written by Levi Strauss & Co. Historian Lynn Downey, From The Archives is an ongoing series of short stories from the company’s vast historical Archives. Throughout our 160 year history we’ve influenced society, culture and style all over the globe. From a massive assortment of vintage product including the original blue jean, to the old advertisements and one off product collaborations, these are the stories that helped shape who we are today.