Exhibition of the largest public display of material from the Levi Strauss & Co. Archives opens

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Exhibition of the largest public display of material from the Levi Strauss & Co. Archives opens
Box of press-on buttons available to customers at retail locations, c. 1937. Levi Strauss & Co. Archives.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA.- In 1873, near the end of the Gold Rush, Levi Strauss & Co., named for a Bavarian Jewish dry goods merchant in San Francisco, obtained a U.S. patent with tailor Jacob Davis for the process of putting metal rivets in men’s work pants to increase their durability. This small innovation marked a transformative moment in American style – it was the birth of the blue jean.

From February 13 to August 9, 2020, The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco celebrates the cultural legacy this invention inspired with Levi Strauss: A History of American Style, an original exhibition showcasing the life of Levi Strauss and the worldwide phenomenon of the now iconic blue jean. Featuring over 250 items from the Levi Strauss & Co. Archives, including garments, advertisements, photographs, and ephemera, The CJM’s exhibition represents the largest public display of the company’s archival materials ever assembled.

Levi Strauss: A History of American Style tells the distinctly American story of Levi Strauss, a Jewish immigrant whose civic and philanthropic contributions were fundamental to San Francisco’s municipal development, and whose company, Levi Strauss & Co., influenced culture on a global scale. The history of Levi Strauss & Co. reflects the changing consciousness of the country, and this exhibition tracks the company’s trajectory from its initial emphasis on nineteenth-century miners and blue-collar laborers; to its role in crafting the mythology of the American West in the early twentieth century; to its impact on the rise of international youth culture in the 1960s, and beyond. Marketed as hard-working, authentic, and effortlessly cool, Levi’s® fashioned an American identity defined by style.

“This exhibition captures the essence of The CJM’s mission, at once telling a story that is definitively Jewish, classically American, and deeply embedded in the cultural fabric of San Francisco,” said Lori Starr, Executive Director of The CJM. “Through a celebration of the birth of the blue jean, the exhibition shares the story of a hardworking Jewish immigrant who realized the American dream and inspired a style revolution that continues today. The exhibition will contextualize the Jewish experience for twenty-first-century audiences, offering insight into the history of San Francisco and its Jewish population, the story of an iconic element of American style, and the inventive spirit behind it all.”

The exhibition will invite visitors to experience Levi Strauss & Co.’s enduring impact with rarely before seen objects, including a suit owned by Lauren Bacall, a never-before-exhibited jacket worn by Albert Einstein, an AMC Gremlin car with an interior upholstered completely in denim, and a custom ensemble worn by Lauryn Hill on her Miseducation tour. Works in a variety of media will be on view, reflecting the myriad ways Levi’s® has infused the culture of this country, and has become shorthand for classic American style abroad.

Opening with a quintessentially American story, the exhibition follows Levi Strauss as he immigrated to New York from Bavaria, before chasing the gold rush west to San Francisco and opening the West Coast outpost of the Strauss family’s already successful dry goods business. Images from Strauss’s home and life in Buttenheim, Germany will be on view, alongside a large-scale, 13-panel reproduction of Eadweard Muybridge’s panoramic depiction of San Francisco from 1878. The panorama offers a starting point for the exhibition, capturing the civic impact that Strauss had on the city and its Jewish community, depicting several of the institutions that played a role in the story of Levi Strauss & Co. Strauss was a pillar of the Jewish community and a generous philanthropist, supporting Jewish charities, local orphanages, and synagogues—he was a founding member of Temple Emanu-El, one of the oldest congregations in California.

This early period also marks the moment when the iconic Levi’s® Two Horse trademark was developed. The logo remains one of the oldest continually used trademarks in the world. Images of the iconic logo will appear on historic garments on view, including on a pair of early “waist overalls,” the first pants to use the patented riveting system, and which helped skyrocket the company to fame.

From the turn of the century through the 1950’s, Levi Strauss & Co. shifted its focus from work clothes to western wear, and through sweeping advertising campaigns, had a dramatic impact on shaping the mythology of the American West, both at home and abroad. The exhibition will bring to light the deep relationship between the all-American blue jean and cowboy and cowgirl culture, through photographs, garments, and advertisements. Among the works on view will be a hand-carved wooden puppet and photographs of Levi Strauss & Co.’s mechanical rodeo from the 1939 World’s Fair, a show that featured miniature puppet versions of famous rodeo stars; the advertisements that captured and propagated the spirit of the West; and western wear from the time, including a rodeo clown costume and “The Saddleman,” a cowboy character registered as a logo that became an official symbol of the brand. This section of the exhibition highlights the innovative nature of Levi Strauss & Co.’s advertising, turning an eye to the way in which the company branded American culture as a commodity that could be shared and exported, and how they went on to shape modern marketing practices.

The exhibition will conclude with the rise of international youth culture and an exploration of how Levi Strauss & Co. intertwined with the counterculture, enmeshing itself in the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll rebellion, the hippie movement, Hollywood, and California surfer and biker culture. With the postwar fracturing of traditional American culture, Levi Strauss & Co. successfully positioned the brand as a blank slate onto which individual expression could be projected, making Levi’s® a ubiquitous symbol for the American dream, and enabling Americans from all walks of life to make the jeans their own. Video clips from several classic films prominently featuring actors wearing Levi’s® emphasize the impact the brand had as a signifier for effortless cool on a large scale. From the covers of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” and the Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers,” to vintage advertisements that helped shape surf culture, to limited edition Air Jordans, designer collaborations, and custom celebrity pieces, the final section of the exhibition celebrates Levi Strauss & Co.’s tremendous impact on cultural history in America and around the world.

Together, the works on view offer unprecedented access and insight into the life and work of Levi Strauss, his impact on the city of San Francisco and its Jewish community, as well as the ongoing influence of Levi Strauss & Co. on American and global style. Through the lens of a Jewish immigrant, visitors are invited to experience a timeless American story of ingenuity, perseverance, and success. The scope and sweep of the exhibition follow the arc of modern American history, revealing the synchronicity between the evolution of the blue jean and the trajectory of American pop culture.

The exhibition will be supported by a robust series of public programs, including a film series celebrating the mythology of the American West; panel discussions on how technology makes fashion more sustainable; a conversation with Levi Strauss biographer Lynn Downey; gallery chats by fashion designers and historians; and performances by local musicians. The exhibition will also include tours for students that explore the gold rush and immigration to California, as well as the rise in popularity of the blue jean. Through hands-on activities and first-hand testimonies, students will learn about Levi Strauss’s California and the diverse movements that defined California at the turn of the twentieth century.

Levi Strauss: A History of American Style is organized by The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco in collaboration with Levi Strauss & Co. Historian Tracey Panek and co-curated by The CJM’s Chief Preparator and Exhibition Designer, Justin Limoges and Senior Curator, Heidi Rabben.

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