Levi Strauss: A History of American Style opens Feb. 13 at The Contemporary Jewish Museum

Albert Einstein's leather jacket with an issue of Time Magazine
Levi Strauss & Co. Archives
The iconic leather jacket worn by Albert Einstein will be featured in the new exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Photo courtesy of the Levi Strauss & Co. Archives.

The seed of a fashion revolution was just being planted when Levi Strauss, in partnership with Jacob Davis, patented pants fashioned with rivets on the pocket corners in 1873. Today, few things are as iconic within American culture and style—particularly in the West—as a pair of worn blue jeans marked with a red Levi’s tab on the right back pocket. Opening Feb. 13 at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco is Levi Strauss: A History of American Style, showcasing the work and influence of both the man and the brand. 

Born to an Ashkenazi Jewish family in 1829, Strauss immigrated to New York from Bavaria at the age of 18. By 1853 Strauss had made his way to San Francisco, hoping to capitalize on the California Gold Rush. In San Francisco, Strauss opened up a dry-goods business, Levi Strauss & Co. Davis, a tailor from Reno, Nevada, designed the game-changing work pants to improve durability and partnered with Strauss after he was unable to afford the patent on his own. The waist-high overalls were soon being sported by miners, teamsters, lumberjacks, and farmers with thousands of San Franciscans wearing Levi’s (trademarked in 1966) by the end of 1873. A century and a half later and Levi’s are a staple of American culture, symbolizing youth, freedom, and effortless cool.

Denim outfit on a mannequin
Denim suit worn by Lauren Bacall. Photo courtesy of Levi Strauss & Co. Archives.

The new CJM exhibit features the leather jacket worn religiously by Einstein and famously donned by the intellectual for a 1938 Time magazine cover. Levi’s was unaware that the treasured piece was theirs until it went up for auction in 2016, at which point they purchased the leather jacket still infused with the smell of Einstein’s pipe smoke for £110,500. With more than 250 items from the Levi Strauss & Co. Archives and loans from additional vendors, the exhibit also showcases an upcycled denim suit worn by Lauren Bacall, an ensemble worn by Lauryn Hill on her Miseducation tour, and an American Motor Company Gremlin with an entirely denim interior. In capturing Levi Strauss & Co.’s influence, the exhibit reveals the role of the brand’s clothing and marketing in depicting romantic notions of the American West. Having begun as a practical improvement for laboring attire, Levi’s continue to appeal to some for their sensibility, while appealing to others as an avenue for self-expression. 

Old Levi's advertisement says, "an old western custom...Levi's America's Finest Overall since 1850"
Levi’s advertisement from the 1940s. Photo courtesy of Levi Strauss & Co. Archives.
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Levi Strauss: A History of American Style will be on display at The Contemporary Jewish Museum until Aug. 9, 2020. The exhibit is included with general admission tickets which are free for children (18 and under), $14 for seniors (65+) and students (with ID), and $16 for adults.

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