Denim Gold: The Big Three Vintage US Denim Brands

Denim Gold: The Big Three Vintage US Denim Brands

Denim Gold: The Big Three Vintage US Denim Brands

Those of us who grew up before designer denim was a thing- when the big three denim brands were Levi’s, Lee, & Wrangler, would often form a loyalty to one label and stick with it. For many denim was the clothing of the rebel and the rock star- as well as the cowboy. The three big US denim brands developed in different regions and this has, to some extent defined their success and coolness!

The value of vintage denim is a phenomenon which was illustrated by the recent Guardian story of a chap who has excavated old denim in abandoned silver mines in the desert in California, Nevada and Arizona. Used by old miners to lag pipes and block holes these vintage denim pieces – some dating back to 1873- have been sold for up to $100,000! (1)

Levi’s is an iconic brand, maybe the coolest of the lot and as such it obviously is the Californian brand. Best known for its jeans and jackets and founded in 1853 by Levi Strauss & Co. in San Francisco, they have since become one of the most recognised clothing items around the world.

Modern jeans were largely confined to the working west, cowboys, lumberjacks and railroad workers. By WW2 hardwearing blue jeans with rivets were declared, in the US, an essential commodity for those in defence work.

Between the 1950s and 1980s, Levi's jeans and jackets became popular among a wide range of youth subcultures, including greasers, mods, rockers, and hippies. Though maybe not an icon of cool, Bing Crosby was said to be a Levi’s lover and was even presented with a specially made denim tuxedo by the company! (2) 

Levi's popular shrink-to-fit 501s were sold in a unique sizing arrangement; I can clearly remember excitedly taking turns with my siblings  to sit in the bath to shrink our new Levi’s- closely overseen by our mother. The company still produces these unshrunk, uniquely sized jeans today although, thankfully, preshrunk ones are also available! 

Aided by a popular TV ad campaign in the 80s, involving a launderette, a bag of stones and an attractive male model stripping down to his boxers, Levi jeans enjoyed a massive resurgence in popularity. For a long time, the only jeans to be seen in were 501s

Levi's range encompasses denim jeans, jackets, footwear, clothing and accessories- vintage versions of which are a collector’s heaven- there are many, many online resources which explain the intricacies of selvedge seams, rivet placement, stamping and brand labels. If you think you have an old Levi item its worth looking them up!

Wrangler jeans is one of the most recognisable names in denim jeans, jackets and casualwear. Its distinctive W stitched into the pockets makes it stand out from the crowd. Based in Greensboro, North Carolina, Wrangler clothing is workers clothing, maybe less hip than Levi’s but certainly stylish as well as tough as old cowboy boots!

The Blue Bell Overall Company were the original makers of Wrangler Jeans. They employedBernard  Lichtenstein, a Polish tailor, who worked with cowboys, to help design jeans suitable for rodeo use and several well-known rodeo riders were convinced to endorse the clothes. The story goes that the Blue Bell workers took part in a contest to give the jeans a brand name. The winning name was Wrangler, synonymous with the name for a working cowboy. 

Wrangler Jeans had several innovations: strengthened seams, rear pockets positioned for comfort in the saddle, 'no scratch' rivet pocket reinforcement, a zipper fly, and use of a strong tack in the crotch instead of a metal rivet- that last one seems obvious! 

Future designs included creating jackets and shirts to suit the needs of working cowboys - to address performance, durability and comfort.

The functional design still plays a big part in Wrangler clothing designs today, which now also include t-shirts, shoes and accessories, however they now are also stylish and modern to appeal to a wide variety of people - not just cowboys!

Lee Jeans is a legendary American denim brand that has been creating truly iconic jeans, jackets and retro clothing for over 125 years. Originally based in Kansas and big in the east and Midwest. Lee has a lower profile than the other brands however this very understatement makes them a more original choice- the brand of the individual.

The company was formed in 1889 by Henry David Lee producing dungarees and jackets. Later in the 1920s Lee introduced a zipper fly and continued to expand. During the next two decades the company became the one of the leading manufacturers of work clothes in the US.

 In 1954, Lee expanded into casual wear - a development which continued into the 1970s, when Lee shifted its focus from the workwear business and began catering to fashion cycles. In 1932 Lee designed the 101 Cowboy Pants, which evolved into Lee Riders, followed by their iconic 101J jean jacket and old blanket-lined, corduroy collared Storm Rider Jackets. The slimline 101J’s fit was short and attractive giving Lee sex appeal! 

jjjLee was the denim of choice for many film stars- James Dean clearly wearing Lee in Rebel without a Cause and many photos show Steve McQueen was a fan too. An early example of product placement was evident in the 1963 critically acclaimed film Hud, where the wearing of Lee clothing seems to have been a prerequisite! 

Repsycho regularly stocks vintage and used denim items, when we first began as market traders, denim was our main line- indeed 501s have consistently been among our best-selling items for over 30 years. Vintage denim clothing is adaptable, sustainable and just plain wearable, Levi’s, Wrangler’s and Lee vintage denim is all of this and cool too– and worth its weight in gold!



(3)    Wrangler Jeans Advertisement Playboy Magazine April 1971  CC by 2.0