For Wild West miners and cowboys, Levi’s riveted blue jeans addressed a fundamental need for durable workplace clothing. That alone was enough to ensure the product’s early commercial success. (See the Tale of their invention here.) As stitching, threads and textiles became more rugged, this source of differentiation faded and then disappeared altogether when the patent expired in 1890. For awhile longer, the Levi’s brand — supported by trademark details like the arcuate double-stitching on the backpocket, a leather logo’d patch on the back of the waist, and distinctive engraving on the rivets with the original patent identifier — sustained consumer trust. But this alone doesn’t explain the product’s enduring success. Their adoption by actors in cinema and television, new mass media of the first half of the 20th century, transformed the appeal of denim slacks into an expression of social identification. Capitalizing on the pants’ popularity with cowboys, actors like Bing Crosby, Roy Rogers, John Wayne and even Marylin Monroe projected earthy independence by wearing riveted overalls1 in the 1930’s and 40’s.2 In the 1950’s, the pants came to symbolize youthful revolt after movie-star James Dean famously wore a pair made by Levi’s competitor Lee in “Rebel Without a Cause”.
And finally, the attachment many people feel to an old pair of worn out and faded jeans arguably relates to a personal association those pants may have with specific moments in their lives and the very passage of time. Unwilling to toss them away, some will liken them to a “second skin”, an admission of intimate personalization. “The eternal appeal of jeans is just that they reflect us and they reflect the lives that we’ve had in them,” wrote British pop culture author Paul Trynka.3
Each stage in the product’s long life reflects its rise in the Maslow hierarchy of authentic human motivations, making blue jeans a marketer’s ultimate dream.
1 “Blue-jeans” reportedly replaced “overalls” as the product name only in 1960.
2 “History of denim through the ages: Western wear goes Hollywood”, The Selvedge Yard, 2 10/17/09
3 Marsh, G, Trynka, P (2002), Denim: From Cowboys to Catwalks, Arnum Press Limited, UK