Levi Strauss: A History of American Style
The Contemporary Jewish Museum – San Francisco
February 13, 2020 – January 10, 2021
In 1873, near the end of the Gold Rush, Levi Strauss & Co., named for a Bavarian Jewish dry goods merchant in San Francisco, obtained a U.S. patent with tailor Jacob Davis for the process of putting metal rivets in men’s work pants to increase their durability. This small innovation marked a transformative moment in American style – it was the birth of the blue jean. The Contemporary Jewish Museum (The CJM) in San Francisco celebrates the cultural legacy this invention inspired with Levi Strauss: A History of American Style, an original exhibition showcasing the life of Levi Strauss and the worldwide phenomenon of the now iconic blue jean. Featuring over 250 items from the Levi Strauss & Co. Archives, including garments, advertisements, photographs, and ephemera, The CJM’s exhibition represents the largest public display of the company’s archival materials ever assembled.
Levi Strauss: A History of American Style tells the distinctly American story of Levi Strauss, a Jewish immigrant whose civic and philanthropic contributions were fundamental to San Francisco‘s municipal development, and whose company, Levi Strauss & Co., influenced culture on a global scale. The history of Levi Strauss & Co. reflects the changing consciousness of the country, and this exhibition tracks the company’s trajectory from its initial emphasis on nineteenth-century miners and blue-collar laborers; to its role in crafting the mythology of the American West in the early twentieth century; to its impact on the rise of international youth culture in the 1960s, and beyond. Marketed as hard-working, authentic, and effortlessly cool, Levi’s® fashioned an American identity defined by style.
“This exhibition captures the essence of The CJM’s mission, at once telling a story that is definitively Jewish, classically American, and deeply embedded in the cultural fabric of San Francisco”, said Lori Starr, Executive Director of The CJM. ”
Opening with a quintessentially American story, the exhibition follows Levi Strauss as he immigrated to New York from Bavaria, before chasing the gold rush west to San Francisco and opening the West Coast outpost of the Strauss family’s already successful dry goods business. This early period also marks the moment when the iconic Levi’s® Two Horse trademark was developed. The logo remains one of the oldest continually used trademarks in the world.
From the turn of the century through the 1950’s, Levi Strauss & Co. shifted its focus from work clothes to western wear, and through sweeping advertising campaigns, had a dramatic impact on shaping the mythology of the American West, both at home and abroad. The exhibition will bring to light the deep relationship between the all-American blue jean and cowboy and cowgirl culture, through photographs, garments, and advertisements. This section of the exhibition highlights the innovative nature of Levi Strauss & Co.’s advertising, turning an eye to the way in which the company branded American culture as a commodity that could be shared and exported, and how they went on to shape modern marketing practices.
The exhibition will conclude with the rise of international youth culture and an exploration of how Levi Strauss & Co. intertwined with the counterculture, enmeshing itself in the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll rebellion, the hippie movement, Hollywood, and California surfer and biker culture. With the postwar fracturing of traditional American culture, Levi Strauss & Co. successfully positioned the brand as a blank slate onto which individual expression could be projected, making Levi’s® a ubiquitous symbol for the American dream, and enabling Americans from all walks of life to make the jeans their own.
Video clips from several classic films prominently featuring actors wearing Levi’s® emphasize the impact the brand had as a signifier for effortless cool on a large scale. From the covers of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” and the Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers”, to vintage advertisements that helped shape surf culture, to limited edition Air Jordans, designer collaborations, and custom celebrity pieces, the final section of the exhibition celebrates Levi Strauss & Co.’s tremendous impact on cultural history in America and around the world.
Together, the works on view offer unprecedented access and insight into the life and work of Levi Strauss, his impact on the city of San Francisco and its Jewish community, as well as the ongoing influence of Levi Strauss & Co. on American and global style. Through the lens of a Jewish immigrant, visitors are invited to experience a Levi Strauss: A History of American Style of ingenuity, perseverance, and success.