Meet Viola: Our Oldest Pair of Women’s Levi’s® Jeans

Tracey Panek, LS&Co. Historian
Levi Strauss & Co.
August 29, 2017

We’re known for creating the world’s first blue jean, patented in 1873, for men. But in the 1930s, we leveled the denim playing field, offering the world’s first blue jeans made especially for women.

Today we’re excited to announce a new addition to our Levi Strauss & Co. Archives, a one-of-a-kind denim find—meet Viola, officially our oldest pair of women’s blue jeans.

The jean predates the Harriet, formerly the oldest pair of women’s jeans we owned. Named after its original owner, the Viola was discovered by vintage collector Samantha Canales in the linen closet of the late Viola Bedford at an estate sale in Fresno, California.

Viola’s significance at LS&Co. runs deep. In the 1930s, the idea of women wearing jeans was certainly unconventional, even progressive. Yet, Levi Strauss & Co. recognized the need for more practical and functional attire for women … and delivered with its own line of Lady Levi’s® jeans.

While little was known about the Viola jeans when found, some sleuthing by Samantha, LS&Co. Historian Tracey Panek, and Viola’s daughter, Bette Duncan, would help fill in the blanks.

A student in Levi’s®

Viola Longacre, as she was known then, had invested in a pair of what is believed to be one the earliest prototypes of women’s Levi’s® jeans as a college student in the 1930s. You’d often catch her donning her only pair of denim, inscribed with her name on the inside pocket, on campus at Fresno State’s Sierra Summer School, where she studied to be a teacher. The school was on a piece of land near Huntington Lake in the Sierra National Forest, and classes were often held outside — the perfect venue for rugged, durable clothing.

“I’m quite sure she bought them herself.  It was the Depression, and she didn’t go straight to college from high school.  She worked for a couple of years and she paid her own way,” Bette recalled.

The school was also where Viola met her future husband. “Maybe that’s one reason why she kept them — because it reminded her,” Bette said. “All I know is I was never allowed to try them on.”

They would end up being the only pair of jeans Viola would ever own, as her student style gave way to more professional attire when she became an educator. And they wouldn’t resurface until decades later, following Viola’s passing.

A priceless find

The Viola is a priceless find, according to Tracey, who speculates that the Lot 401 women’s value jean is an example of a limited-run prototype created to test the market before Lady Levi’s® Lot 701 was officially launched. Differentiated by a fabric back patch and less expensive sundries such as doughnut buttons, it’s likely that Viola’s Lot 401 jean was sold at a lower price than the 701 — ideal for a struggling young college student during the Depression.

“The Viola jean is a remarkable new addition to the Levi Strauss & Co. Archives, and provides invaluable information on the evolution of women’s clothing more broadly,” Tracey said. “It also helps us better understand the women who first wore our blue jeans — young, independent and fashion-forward — and the larger cultural context of the Levi’s® brand.”

That description aptly fits Viola herself, Bette said. Her mother’s tenacious disposition could be why her now-prized pants were kept in such great condition. “She traveled the world.  She didn’t like to stay home, which I why I guess the linen closet was never cleaned out.”

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