Levi Strauss, The Man Who Changed Fashion

Stacy Conradt
Stacy Conradt / Stacy Conradt

If you can look at your behind right now and see a little red tag attached to the back pocket of your jeans, you have Levi Strauss to thank.

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In 1848, the Bavarian-born Strauss moved from Germany to New York to help his older brothers with their dry-goods business, J. Strauss Brother & Co. Like many other folks seeking to make their fortunes, he decided to head west when he heard "there's gold in them thar' hills"—but it wasn't the mineral he was after. Figuring that all of the '49ers would need access to more supplies, Levi established a branch of the family business in San Francisco.

Strauss was successful enough that, in 1872, Jacob Davis, a tailor from Reno who often purchased bolts of denim from Strauss, contacted him about an idea he had for stronger clothing [PDF]. The future, he figured, was rivets. His customers went through pants at an alarming rate, and Davis had noticed that wear and tear often occurred at the same points, regardless of the wearer or the pant. To reduce the amount of stress placed on these points, Davis had started putting rivets at each of the commonly torn locations. He wanted to patent the idea, but needed a partner to help him get up and running. Strauss was onboard, and on May 20, 1873, he and Jacob received the patent for blue jeans.

Stacy Conradt

Though the jeans were originally worn by blue collar workers looking to extend the life of their clothing, Levis quickly grew beyond just utilitarian use. From the pair of 501s Marlon Brando donned in 1953's The Wild One to the trusty leather jacket Albert Einstein wore almost everywhere, the Levi brand became a worldwide phenomenon. "It was the kind of clothing that represented the American West and it was this cachet and this sort of magical thing," Lynn Downey, archivist and historian at Levi Strauss & Co., told the BBC.

Stacy Conradt

Though Strauss didn't make it quite long enough to see his company become the global mainstream success it is today, it did flourish, leaving him a multimillionaire when he died in 1902. Perhaps that's why he "cheerfully fell into [his] last sleep," according to his obituary in the Los Angeles Times. "Death came most suddenly to the old gentleman, and he passed away just as if he were going asleep. He replied cheerfully to a question from his nurse, and the next moment he was dead." Strauss had no children, so he left the business to his four nephews, who had previously been made partners in the company.

If you want to pay your respects to the man who helped change the face of fashion, you can find him at the Home of Peace Cemetery and Emanu-El Mausoleum in Colma, California.