From the Archives: When Denim Was Dangerous

After the dust of World War II finally settled, Levi Strauss & Co. decided to start selling jeans, jackets, and shirts beyond the Western states, the main sales territory ever since we invented the blue jean in 1873.

By 1949 Levi’s® jeans could be found in East Coast locales, like New York and Connecticut. By the 1950s, they were everywhere–and everyone knew the brand’s name.

But why and how did this change occur?

Despite our advertisements, which marketed our jeans as the proper attire for “schoolboys,” Hollywood costume designers took a liking to the brand and put all the “bad boys” in denim. Though denim was gaining traction as a “leisure” fabric, most Americans still considered it a blue-collar textile, worn only by the rougher sorts in society.

At the time, wearing jeans was considered “bad form,” which meant rebellious wearers had “bad attitudes.” This opinion is best exemplified by a letter, now in our Archives, from a woman in Hillsdale, New Jersey on August 29, 1957:

I could not help being shocked with your “ad” in
The Sunday News of August 25.

I refer to the picture showing a young boy dressed
in shirt sleeves, sloppily opened at the collar and
wearing dungarees with the caption – “RIGHT FOR
SCHOOL.”

While I have to admit that this may be “right for
school” in San Francisco, in the west, or in some
rural areas I can assure you that it is in bad
taste and “not right for School” in the East and
particularly New York…

I wonder if your personnel office would consider
this same boy dressed “right” if he were to apply
for employment as an executive trainee or even
an office boy, dressed as you call it “right for
school”?

Of course, you may have different standards and
perhaps your employees are permitted to wear
Bermuda shorts or golf togs in your office while
transacting Levi’s business!

Which ever it is, and assuming that only ignorance
is responsible for such a lack of good taste and that
no insult was intended by your firm, we hope your
misrepresentation of “right for school” will be
corrected to more suited occupations.

Propriety and respect are good discipline rules.
Let’s not desecrate our schools nor promote
juvenile delinquency.

Isn’t it amazing how this woman predicted the rise of casual wear in the workplace?

She was fighting a losing battle, of course. Denim was soon “right for school” all over the United States. By the 1960s, jeans were part of the uniform for social rebellion. Today, it’s still causing trouble…but it’s still everyone’s favorite fabric.

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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.