Levi Strauss & Co. has snapped up a piece of feminist history, as well as its own, by acquiring what are likely the oldest pair of women’s jeans in existence.
Bought and worn in the early Thirties by Viola Longacre, who was then studying to be a teacher at a Fresno, Calif. college and passed away in 2014 aged 100, the jeans are among Levi’s first denim offerings for women in an era when a woman in pants of any kind was atypical.
“Pants for women in the Thirties were uncommon,” Tracey Panek, Levi’s resident historian, said. “Women entering the workforce who needed sturdy workwear during World War II helped change the perceptions about wearing pants.
But even with women heading in droves to take up often heavy-duty manufacturing work, pants for women were generally trousers, “no denim,” Panek said.
The culture of Fresno, part of a county still dominated by agriculture, made it a good market for women’s jeans, which would have appealed to women looking for “practicality” when much of life involved being outdoors, Panek said.
The jeans were found in a 2015 estate sale and the buyer initially contacted Levi’s for an appraisal, before the denim company acquired them for an undisclosed sum. They are now known as “Viola” and are the oldest women’s jeans in Levi’s archives. The previous holder of that title is a pair known as “Harriet” after their former owner Harriet Atwood and date to 1938. Levi’s oldest pair of men’s jeans date to 1879.
Levi’s first introduced jeans for women in 1934 with features like a slimmer thigh and higher waist. A “value version,” like that bought by Longacre, was also introduced and made without suspender buttons and Levi’s classic red tab, and included uncovered copper rivets.
Panek said she doesn’t know of any specific cultural backlash that came from offering jeans for women at the time, but she admitted they were “certainly less popular in some regions.”
“The West embraced denim riveted pants more readily, for instance, than the more formal and traditionally dressed East Coast,” she said.
Although the early version of Levi’s denim for women was featured in a 1935 Vogue article on dude ranching, Panek said it wasn’t until the Fifties and Sixties that women’s denim started to take off.
She attributes the boon in part to Levi’s advertising, but also the effective endorsement of Marilyn Monroe, who wore a pair of Levi’s for her role in “The Misfits,” which was released in early 1961. It was the last film Monroe completed before her death, as it was for her co-star, Clark Gable.
Since then, denim has been increasingly embraced by all sorts of people and become acceptable in all sorts of settings (even Maureen Chiquet was known for wearing jeans every day during her tenure as chief executive officer of Chanel), but Levi’s sees the “Viola” jeans as more than just denim.
“Acquiring Viola was a huge coup and one of our most important additions,” Panek said. “Viola helps us further understand our heritage and the cultural context of the Levi’s brand. Having Viola’s jeans and her story is also a key milestone in the history of women’s clothing generally. It’s priceless information.”