California Dreams

Museum Brings San Francisco History & the Story of Levi’s® to Germany

Tracey Panek, LS&Co. Historian
Levi Strauss & Co.
September 10, 2019

This week, the Bundeskunsthalle, Germany’s national museum of art, opens its latest exhibition that encapsulates the history of a city – and the birth of a brand – more than 5,000 miles away.

“California Dreams. San Francisco—a Portrait,” explores the dreams and realities of the area, from pre-European contact to the 1800s Gold Rush to today’s Silicon Valley. We provided three Levi’s® garments to display in the show which represents a remarkable curation of artifacts.

California Dreams“It was four years in the making,” says Curator Henriette Pleiger. “Institutions have been amazingly generous.” The Levi Strauss & Co. Archives and over 30 other organizations – most located in California but some as far away as Washington D.C. and St. Petersburg, Russia – loaned pieces. Artifacts range from a 19th century painting of San Francisco’s Mission Dolores, a depiction of the Golden Gate Bridge under construction (from the Smithsonian), Pomo baskets, Allen Ginsberg’s typewriter (from the Beat Museum), Gilbert Baker’s Rainbow Flag (from the GLBT Historical Society) and our own Steve Jobs’ 501® jeans. The exhibit shows San Francisco as a place whose identity has constantly changed—not unlike the history of Levi’s® blue jeans.

Levi Strauss & Co. pieces are peppered throughout the exhibition with a spotlight on our history as part of the Gold Rush section where a wall-size mural of the company’s early Battery Street headquarters stands. A reproduction of the May 20, 1873 patent, representing the birth of blue jeans, is mounted on the wall next to images of 1890s trade cards of a miner and engineer in blue denim copper-riveted overalls. The showcase of the display is a case with the faded and patched 501® jeans worn by hard rock miner Homer Campbell.

Dug Miles’ custom Levi’s® jeans, painted, beaded and embroidered, are the highlight of the portion of the exhibit representing the late 1960s hippie era. Dug’s Levi’s® were one of the prize-winning selections in the Levi’s® Denim Art Contest of 1973.

And, of course, no history of Silicon Valley would be complete without Steve Jobs. His personal pair of 501® jeans, dating California Dreamsback to the 1980s, anchors the Silicon Valley section. They are displayed with his Versace shirt as well as suspenders from the period. Jobs’ customized the jeans by adding buttons to the inside waistband to accommodate suspenders. They most likely date to 1984 when he introduced the Apple IIc.

The exhibition happens to coincide with the 30-year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall when the world watched Germany as the Iron Curtain fell and the Cold War ended when the wall toppled in 1989. Symbolically, hundreds of teenagers climbed atop the wall wearing blue jeans that had been banned under Communist rule. The new global garment was considered a symbol of youth, freedom and hope for the future.

Likewise, Levi’s® garments, and the worldwide phenomenon of blue jeans, have singularly become the canvas reflecting the center of culture. In sharing the experiences of San Francisco to visitors half a world away, “California Dreams” proves that history and stories can bridge distances.

“California Dreams. San Francisco—a Portrait” will run from September 12, 2019 through January 12, 2020 at the Bundeskunsthalle. Can’t make it out to Bonn, Germany? View highlights online.

Keep up with the LS&Co. Archives and other cool LS&Co. heritage news by following Tracey on Twitter, @TraceyPanek, and stay tuned to Unzipped!