Not too long ago — in an effort to insult yours truly — someone accused ACL of becoming “The History Channel’s” blog. The commenter was attempting to offend, but the remark accomplished only the opposite. I can think of a lot of worse things this site could be. History is the basis for everything that is ACL. With that said, when the opportunity arose to spend the afternoon with Lynn Downey the Levi Strauss & Co. archivist and historian, I could imagine of no better way to enjoy a summer day.
ACL: It seems like you have a pretty amazing Job, how does this come about, how do you end up becoming the archivist for Levi’s?
Lynn Downey: Sheer amazing luck. I heard that the company was hiring an archivist for the first time in 1989, and my bachelors degree is in History and my masters degree is in Library and Information Science, but I specialized in archival administration and I applied for the job and I got it in December of ’89.
ACL: You didn’t know anyone? No inside track or anything?
LD: No, I just heard about it through the archivist network, that there was this job opening up at Levi’s — and I am the third generation of my family, at least, to wear Levi’s — plus, I’m a writer of California history. I’ve been publishing for years and it seemed like a great opportunity to take a collection that was in chaos and make a working collection out of it, which is always really exciting.
ACL: How much has the Levi’s archive grown since you have been on-board?
LD: When I started my job we had one pair of jeans that was made before 1900, we now have eleven. There were maybe two hundred and fifty pieces of clothing, we now have over five thousand pieces of clothing. There was already a pretty significant collection of documents and photographs, and that’s pretty much stayed constant. And we had lots of great old marketing stuff — which is something I buy on the open market — old fliers and hand bills from the nineteenth century. We have a huge warehouse South of San Francisco where we keep a lot of stuff. (In chimes the Levi’s PR person: undisclosed location!) Completely undisclosed location! (laughing) Don’t even dare ask me where it is. (Laughing.)
ACL: (Pause) Um…I need the address.
ACL: And the combination…
ACL: So if an amazing pair of Levi’s were found in a Nevada silver mine in 1988, who would handle that sort of thing? Would it just be ignored? From reading the 501 book, it seemed like back in the older days people would send in their “vintage” denim and Levi’s would just say “thank you,” send the customer a new pair and that was that.
LD: That happened a lot way back in history, but when the whole vintage Levi’s thing happened in the mid eighties the company was absolutely unaware of it, and I wasn’t even aware of it. So I’m starting my job — and I guess people had occasionally called the company to say they had vintage jeans but nobody [at Levi’s] did anything. So people are calling me saying “I’ve got a pair of ‘Big E’ jeans’ and I would say. “You have what?” I mean, I knew nothing about the vintage market, but I have been working with this one dealer in Santa Monica my whole career and he really helped educate me about the vintage Levi’s market as I was learning the history, as I got started in my job. But, as soon as people realized that there was someone at Levi’s buying this stuff we got all the phone calls — and the company has given me a generous acquisitions budget every year because they understand how important it is, to have these materials in the collection. First, just because of the heritage — we invented the blue jean and we must have the definitive collection — but also a lot of these pieces are recreated through Levi’s Vintage Clothing, special limited edition pieces and so on.
ACL: Something I have always thought is interesting — and this relates to the vintage market — up until a certain point, say around 1950, Levi’s weren’t sold on the East Coast. So all of the old old Levi’s dating back to the early 1900s are found out west. Is that because Levi’s was just a West Coast regional thing?
Well, it started just as a regional thing, we had the lock on the West and other brands had their own consumer segments. I believe Lee had the South sort of sewn up, and there were some other brands, I think Lee included, that were known in New York. It’s funny, you could always tell where someone was from; if they said “jeans,” then they were from the west, if they were from the East they called them “dungarees,” you could immediately tell where someone was from.
But after World War II the company really realized that with the rise of the baby boomer and the new generation of children that were growing, and with all of the new suburbs that were being built there was a good opportunity for us to expand nationally. The other thing is, that Levi’s continued to be a dry goods wholesaler all the way through WWII. At that point we said. “We don’t need to do this anymore. This represents something that is an anachronism, we don’t really need to be this. But what we have is an incredible collection of manufactured products and we’re going to introduce it back East.” I think it was just pure opportunity.
That is how we began to penetrate the East, with very basic advertising that said that Levi’s were “Right for School.” Because boys in the west wore Levi’s — and I know my dad did — wore Levi’s to school. So that advertising was a way to show that nice clean cut young men were wearing blue jeans, because by the mid-fifties it was the era of the bad boys of cinema.
The quintessential “bad boy in denim movie” is The Wild One with Marlon Brando. Scary guys on motorcycles in denim, white tee shirts and black leather motorcycle jackets that terrorize a town. That movie was originally a short story called A Cyclists Raid by Frank Rooney, and it was based on this infamous incident in Hollister, California — which is in the middle of nowhere in the Central Valley — where the Hell’s Angels came into town, I think in 1947, and they’re all drinkin’ beer and they’re carousing, whatever, but they didn’t do any damage. They sort of just were having a big party, and then Life Magazine posed a guy in the gutter surrounded by empty beer bottles next to his motorcycle and said. “This is what happens when all of these motorcyclists come to town.” It was a totally made up photo. So this guy Frank Rooney writes this story about a motorcycle gang coming into a town and it was kinda scary — and they turned it into the movie The Wild One. But! In [Frank Rooney’s] story they’re wearing motorcycle khaki jumpers, and not denim. But when they went to make the film, code for “bad boy” in film by the mid-fifties was denim. So when they rode into town on those motorcycles [in The Wild One] and they were in denim, immediately [the locals] knew they were going to be trouble. If they would have rode into town in the khaki jumpers people would have thought that the highway patrol was there. That’s how quickly costume designers and directors could make a statement about their characters, simply by what they were wearing.
ACL: Was that true [that bad boys were wearing denim] or was that just costume designers and directors projecting that on the characters?
LD: One thing that was happening, literally, was a lot of WWII soldiers had come back from the war where they had been risking their lives for four years and they were expected to come home and move to the suburbs, start having babies and wear the gray flannel suit and work. A lot of these guys were like, no! And they put on their jeans, got on their motorcycles and they hit the road. Or they were like Jack Kerouac, and the guys would say, “this is not my American dream.” And this was terrifying to America and the establishment that was trying to impose order to a society that had been in chaos for four years because of the war. So these guys were demonized, but they were doing nothing. They were demonized because they weren’t conforming and they were wearing jeans. So people just made this leap culturally, and then Hollywood absorbed that culture for film.