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Meet the Levi’s historian who has the world's oldest jeans

In an interview with Lounge, Tracey Panek talks about her dream job, searching for vintage jeans all over the world and why blue jeans are so popular

Tracey Panek, the historian and director of archives at Levi Strauss & Co.
Tracey Panek, the historian and director of archives at Levi Strauss & Co. (Courtesy Levi's)

"It is a dream job,” says Tracey Panek. For close to two decades, this historian and director of archives at Levi Strauss & Co., a 168-year-old clothing brand, has travelled to different corners of the world in search of vintage jeans for their 150-year-old archive—jeans that could even help inspire a new Levi’s look.

Panek, who lives in San Francisco, US, was part of an online talk last week on the transformation of the blue jean, presented by The Godrej Archives at Mumbai-based Godrej & Boyce.

The idea behind the archive, she says, is to “draw from our historical collection and use even the smallest details, ranging from pocket stitching to label designs”, to offer something new in a garment that finds a space in almost every wardrobe.

Also read: Why finding the perfect pair of black pants is like finding The One

In an interview, Panek talks about locating vintage jeans, the oldest pair in their archive, and what makes the garment so special. Edited excerpts:

What made blue jeans so famous?

Blue jeans are timeless. I think Yves Saint Laurent said it best: “I wish I had invented blue jeans. They have expression, modesty, sex appeal, simplicity—all I hope for in my clothes.”

They were born in the American West and evolved for decades from a workwear garment to become a fashion classic. Their democratic beginnings helped infuse them with symbolism as the clothing of the working class—everyday people. This is one factor in their popularity as an unpretentious, authentic garment. Other factors that contributed to the rise of blue jeans include their popularity in Hollywood, their introduction overseas during World War II by American GIs who wore them, and their adoption by youth, activists, musicians and others as a canvas for self-expression.

How do you find a vintage pair?

I am always on the lookout for vintage Levi’s®. I have discovered them at auctions, rummage sales, attics and even abandoned ghost towns. Our Barnyard (1890) jean was found on a farm in northern California and our New Nevada (1880s) jean was found in a Nevada mining area. I have sourced Levi’s® denim as far away as Tokyo and as close as my local Goodwill Thrift Shop.

What are your favourite items from the archive?

I am fond of a pair of Levi’s® that date to 1890. They were found in the Calico mine in the Mojave Desert in southern California by a woman named Barbara Hunter in the 1940s. I met her several years ago and learnt her story. She took the Levi’s® home and wore them to high school. Another favourite is the pair of Levi’s® 501® jeans that (Apple co-founder) Steve Jobs wore in the mid-1980s at the release of the Apple IIc (fourth model in the Apple II series of personal computers). Jobs customised them by adding buttons to the inside waistband of his jeans to accommodate suspenders.

What’s the story behind 501®, the world’s first blue jeans?

It began as an innovative idea to fill a practical need. In the early 1870s, Nevada tailor Jacob Davis was stitching up a pair of work pants for a customer when he hit on the idea of adding tiny metal pieces to the pockets. His “riveted” denim trousers soon became a hit and he could not keep up with the demand. Writing to his fabric supplier, Levi Strauss & Co., Davis proposed that they partner on a patent. On “501 Day”—20 May 1873, US Patent No. 139,121 was granted, and blue jeans were born.

The 501® began as a simple work pant and transformed over the years to become a style staple that is worn everywhere from the boardwalk to the catwalk.

What are the rarest and oldest Levi’s items in the archive?

We keep the oldest pair of blue jeans in the world in a fireproof safe in our archive.

They date to about 1879. We call them XX, a reference to the top-of-the-line denim we used. There are knee marks in several places, suggesting they were worn by more than one person.


XX, the oldest pair of blue jeans in the world, are kept in a fireproof safe in Levi's archive. 
XX, the oldest pair of blue jeans in the world, are kept in a fireproof safe in Levi's archive.  (Courtesy Levi's)

Personalised denim has trended off and on over the years. Where did the idea of customising jeans come from?

Customising denim started soon after blue jeans were invented but began for practical purposes. Our Heath Jean, for example, was found in a dump in a Nevada mine and includes a home-made flap that was added to the right back pocket. New Yorker Annamarie Sandecki customised her 1970s Levi’s® jeans to create a skirt with colourful embroidery and a pair of glasses similar to the ones she wore. We even have a customised Levi’s® denim jacket in our archive that was decorated by Yves Saint Laurent for an AIDS benefit show at Barney’s New York in 1986. It is covered in crystals and sparkles. Against the dark indigo denim, it reminds me of a night sky.

What’s your favourite Levi’s style?

I prefer the look of classic Levi’s® 501® jeans—our earliest riveted blue jeans. I first wore them in high school, growing up in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, and still wear them today.


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