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When Denim Was Dangerous


After the dust of World War II had settled, Levi Strauss & Co. decided to start selling our jeans, jackets and shirts beyond the Western states, which had been the main sales territory ever since we invented the blue jean in 1873.

By 1949 Levi’s® jeans were sold in places like New York, Connecticut and other eastern states. And by the 1950s they were notorious.

Why?

Because we advertised our jeans as the proper attire for “schoolboys” at a time when Hollywood costume designers put all the bad boys in denim. Even though denim had become more of a leisure fabric, most people still considered it a blue-collar fabric, and only the rougher sorts in society wore denim. The best example of this was, and always will be, Marlon Brando in “The Wild One.”

In the 1950s, wearing jeans was bad form and meant you had a bad attitude. This opinion is best exemplified in a letter we have in our Archives. It is from a woman in Hillsdale, New Jersey and was sent to us on August 29, 1957. She was reacting to a newspaper ad, which I’ve included below.

I could not help being shocked with your “ad” in The Sunday News of August 25.

I refer to the picture showing a young boy dressed in shirt sleeves, sloppily opened at the collar and wearing dungarees with the caption – “RIGHT FOR SCHOOL.”

While I have to admit that this may be “right for school” in San Francisco, in the west, or in some rural areas I can assure you that it is in bad taste and “not right for School” in the East and particularly New York…

I wonder if your personnel office would consider this same boy dressed “right” if he were to apply for employment as an executive trainee or even an office boy, dressed as you call it “right for school”?

Of course, you may have different standards and perhaps your employees are permitted to wear Bermuda shorts or golf togs in your office while transacting Levi’s business!

Which ever it is, and assuming that only ignorance is responsible for such a lack of good taste and that no insult was intended by your firm, we hope your misrepresentation of “right for school” will be corrected to more suited occupations.

Propriety and respect are good discipline rules. Let’s not desecrate our schools nor promote juvenile delinquency.

Isn’t it amazing how this woman predicted the rise of casual wear in the workplace?

She was fighting a losing battle, though. Denim was soon right for school all over the United States, and by the 1960s was the uniform for societal rebellion in all its forms. Still causing trouble, but still everyone’s favorite fabric.

Right for School Full Ad.