As 501 jeans turn 150, AMANDA PLATELL reveals her lifelong love affair with the iconic denim strides

We all know a pair of Levi’s by that little red tab on the back pocket. Brand recognition was the very point of it when the Tab Device, as it’s known legally, was first patented in 1936.

But did you know the colour of — and lettering on — a Levi’s tab is a clue to how much your vintage jeans could be worth?

Actor Brad Pitt poses in a pair of Levis 501 for a UK advert in the 1990s

'Did you know the colour of — and lettering on — a Levi’s tab is a clue to how much your vintage jeans could be worth?'

‘Did you know the colour of — and lettering on — a Levi’s tab is a clue to how much your vintage jeans could be worth?’

  • Tabs with a capital E. If you’ve got a pair of 501s with capped up Levi’s on the tab, you’ve got a collector’s item. In 1971, the red tabs were changed to include a lower case ‘e’ and the capped up version was stopped, meaning lovers of 1950s and 60s jeans can see when they’ve got a gem. These are the priciest, worth from €250 to several thousand depending on condition.
  • Got a tab on your 501s with no lettering, but a single trademark symbol? It’s not a fake, but one of a small percentage of pairs issued to prove ownership of the positioning of the tab and the Levi’s trademark.
  • An orange tab. Introduced in the 1960s to signify ‘fashion denim’ rather than work-wear. If you’re looking for an older piece, check whether the jeans have a care label. They weren’t legally enforced on U.S.-made garments until 1971. 
  • A white tab. White tabs were found in the 1960 and 70s on Levi’s corduroy jeans.
  • A silver tab. Introduced in 1988 at the vanguard of grunge and hip hop, and affixed to Levi’s baggy streetwear styles. Silver tabs are in high demand.

Were I to list the men who’ve had a lasting impression on my life, top of the roll of honour would be my dad, then my brothers, followed by a husband and two of my five fiancés. And right up there alongside them would be a man who has always made me feel sexy and young and desirable, but who died more than 50 years before I was born — Mr Levi Strauss.

'Aged 65, I’m still wearing his legendary Levi’s 501s,' says the Daily Mail's Amanda Platell

‘Aged 65, I’m still wearing his legendary Levi’s 501s,’ says the Daily Mail’s Amanda Platell

Movie star Marilyn Monroe on the set of The Misfits in 1962, sporting a classic pair of Levis

Movie star Marilyn Monroe on the set of The Misfits in 1962, sporting a classic pair of Levis


1873: Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis are granted a patent for the process of riveting trousers so they don’t tear with vigorous movement, and the blue jean is born. Called the ‘waist overall’, it is designed for miners.

1937: The rivets on the back pockets are removed because they scratch furniture.

1950s: The 501 enters popular culture as an ‘It’ item of casualwear.

1960: The word ‘overalls’ is replaced by ‘jeans’ in advertising and packaging.

1966: The first TV advert for Levi’s jeans is aired on TV and in cinemas.

1981: 501 jeans ‘cut especially for women’ are finally introduced.

1984: Levi Strauss & Co. becomes official outfitter of the US Olympic team for the Los Angeles Olympics.

1985: Viewers were transfixed as heartthrob Nick Kamen walked into a laundromat, stripped down to his boxers and tossed his 501s into the washing machine.

1990: An unknown — and baby-faced — Brad Pitt appears in the 501 campaign ‘Camera’.

1997: Levi’s buys back a pair of c.1890 501s for a whopping $25,000.

2012: In November 2012, Stephanie Seymour, Daria Werbowy and Lauren Hutton all wear the denim on the cover of Vogue Paris.

2016: Levi’s introduces its skinny shrink-to-fit stretch jeans.

2018: Supermodel Lily Aldridge becomes the face of Levi’s Made & Crafted campaign.

2021: Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford stars in 501’s new campaign.


Aged 65, I’m still wearing his legendary Levi’s 501s. Their sky-blue denim has been woven through the tapestry of my entire life. And as they celebrate their 150th anniversary, these sturdy jeans remain, unequivocally, the coolest item of clothing I’ve ever owned.

My love affair with Levi’s 501s began in the early 1970s when I was 15. That was after the word ‘overalls’ had been dropped from the brand’s advertising and replaced with ‘jeans’ (the name apparently comes from the French word for Genoa — Genes — which was where the fabric was first woven; 501 itself came from the original material), but before they created a woman’s cut in 1981.

Those jeans were so hot, everyone coveted them. I was desperate for a pair, but my dad said I had to work to save up for them — apt, given their origins as a working man’s ‘waist overalls’ — and he’d match me pound for pound.

Lying about my age, I got an after-school job in a supermarket in Perth, Western Australia, where I grew up. A couple of months later, I parted with 15 Aussie dollars, roughly seven euro, and acquired my first pair. Finally, I was not the geeky girl at school but the cool chick.

Fastening those buttons — no zips then — I felt like a cross between a movie star, a rock star and a fully-fledged teenager. I wore them with a white T-shirt on my first date with my surfer boyfriend Derek, who, of course, wore a matching pair.

Oh, what fun I’ve had over the years pulling Levi’s 501s on (and having them pulled off). They have been my jeans of choice and have never let me down.

We had a trick back then to make them look worn in, which was, and still is, definitely cooler than looking newly bought. We’d leave them pegged on the washing line in the blinding 100F Aussie heat so the sun could bleach them.

Nowadays, they are deliberately faded by the manufacturer, but we just improvised, instinctively understanding that Levi’s look their authentic best when slightly battered and lived-in.

By the time I discovered them, Levi’s had been the thing for 20 years. It was Marlon Brando who immortalised the sexiness of Levi’s in the 1951 movie A Streetcar Named Desire, described then as ‘immoral, decadent, vulgar and sinful’.

It wasn’t just the plot that caused a scandal — younger man ravishes older woman — it was the fact that every female with a beating heart longed to rip off Brando’s sexy 501s. His version — dirty, sweaty and toil-scuffed — set the style for an entire generation.

A glamorous duo are pictured sporting a pair of Levis 501s in 1947

A glamorous duo are pictured sporting a pair of Levis 501s in 1947

Stephanie Seymour, Daria Werbowy and Lauren Hutton sport Levis on the cover of Vogue Paris in 2012

Stephanie Seymour, Daria Werbowy and Lauren Hutton sport Levis on the cover of Vogue Paris in 2012

A decade later, along came Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits, looking more sensational and sexy in turned-up Levi’s and white shirt than she did in an hourglass, sequinned dress. As she fought off the advances of Clark Gable, we were given a masterclass in the co-opting of rough-hewn male clothing for the softer female form, and we swooned all over again.

But maybe Levi’s 501s greatest association for the past half century has been with rock music. A symbol of rebellion against conformity, they have always represented freedom from the stuffiness of the previous generation.

Bob Dylan wore them on the cover of his second album in 1963. Elvis rocked in them — though, of course, he was as famous for his Levi’s jacket as the jeans — and so did John Lennon, Bob Marley, and even an early Madonna, to name but a few.

A pair Bruce Springsteen wore on his Born In The USA tour in 1984 later sold at auction for almost £1,000, and at 73 he still looks as though he was born wearing them. Such is the revival in vintage 501s, Levi’s dating back to the 1890s can fetch £20,000.

For us mere mortals, they have simply been an essential part of life. In the 1970s we wore them with handkerchief halter-neck tops made out of our mum’s old scarves. By the 1980s, it was T-shirts and bodies, then bodies and loafers, like the supermodels on the cover of Vogue in 1990.

I still have a pair I bought back then, and can only dream of fitting into them now. The leather patch on the back of the band is so faded, I can’t read the size, but I think they’re a tiny 26in waist. The washing instructions — ‘wash ’em HOT inside out’ — are still visible, with the guarantee, ‘the more you wash ’em, the better they look and fit’, and the little red Levi’s tag on the back pocket to prove authenticity is still attached.

If those jeans could talk . . . Falling in love with a handsome guy who had his own battered Levi’s. The first blissful few years of my marriage, arriving in London and wearing them around our attic flat or stomping through the park, the 501s tucked into boots. I was still wearing them after the marriage ended, but baggier now as I’d lost so much weight through stress.

Then came the Levi’s revival in 1985 with the infamous ‘laundrette’ TV ad starring Nick Kamen. He must have been melted into them they were so tight.

(Actually that was another trick we Levi’s lovers used. Buy them a size too small; wash them in hot water and put them on wet; then wear them as they dry so they’d mould to your body.) They were perfect for weekends away during my next great love affair. Striding across the Yorkshire moors near his cottage in the 501s and a huge moss-green Hucklecote overcoat, or cuddling by an open fire at the local pub with a pair of Timberland boots and polo neck jumper.

Alas, like my waistline, that affair went the way of all good things. But I shall never throw away that pair of Levi’s. Just holding that beloved faded fabric reminds me of good times.

Over the years I had become rather promiscuous with my choice of jeans, especially as brands such as Citizens of Humanity, Goldsign and Paige have more elasticity and are more body hugging in skinny styles. But in my experience they don’t stand the test of time, nor the washing machine, and I’ve always gone back to my 501s.

As my dad, who also owned a couple of pairs of battered 20-year-old Levi’s, always said when Mum implored him to throw them out: ‘Like most good things in life, they’re made to last.’ He was living proof, still pulling them on when he was 90.

In an uncertain world, my Levi’s are that rarest of things, dependable and enduring. As I know my size, I can order them online and they always fit perfectly. Unlike me, they are both classic and classy. Also, unlike me, they don’t age and go all saggy.

We wear their wrinkles and worn-in creases as badges of honour and, in an age when there are countless new denim fashion brands out there, they are a sure sign you are not some flighty follower of fashion.

Levi’s has had lots of slogans over the years. Amid the noise of fast fashion, the brand has always quietly insisted that ‘quality never goes out of style’, or words to that effect. Yet across the span of their 150 years, there’s one tagline that I like the most. It’s my favourite because I know, and have known since the age of 15, that it’s true: ‘You wear other jeans, but you live in Levi’s.’