Levi’s jeans 501 Origin

Jeans never fade. Jeans are never outdated. From when they were designed in 1853, they were simply the uniforms of miners and cowboys. However, jeans were embedded in the history of fashion and human rights. Women wore jeans to showcase their power, hip-hop men wore jeans to demonstrate their swags, and jeans became increasingly popular and transcended their original meanings. In this case, we are going to apply Pierce’s theories to explain the roles of jeans in meaning-making systems which mainly consists of three parts: symbolic mode, iconic mode, and indexical mode. To better illustrate our points of views, we picked Levi’s 501 series as an example. 501 is the most classical series in Levi’s and it was developed with Levi’s in its early history. Nowadays, 501 has over 100 kinds of jeans among which 501 jeans for women are what we target at.

According to Saussure, “Indexical mode refers to a mode in which the signifier is not arbitrary but is directly connected in some way to the signified.” In other words, signifier and signified share some substantial connections mutually even without the foundation social agreement or learning. Let’s take Levi’s jeans 501 origin on the official website of Levi’s as an example to illustrate that.

First of all, the invention of jeans is closely connected to its applications originally, which is largely depended on its texture. Jeans were created in 1853 with Levis Strauss founded a wholesale business in San Francisco. At that time, 501 series of jeans were designed for western workers, miners, and cowboys, because jeans were made of canvas at first and were more sustainable and firmer than common pants. Its texture determined that it was perfect for people who took part in manual labor. Years later, canvas were replaced by Denim which was a sturdy cotton warp-face textile and firm as well. Hence, it makes sense when we trace back to the original uses of jeans from the perspective of their physical characteristics.

In terms of the shape of jeans, jeans can be divided into various categories, such as super skinny to straight considering their fitness with legs, high rise to low rise considering their positions with waists, capris-pants to short pants considering their length, let alone countless decorative pattern and fashionable elements. It is almost impossible to classify how many genres of jeans in the world due to different standards. However, each and every pair of jeans somehow can be classified into a certain category because of its direct impression on people. The process of classification is exactly the process of making index. People extract the most distinguished elements from jeans and organize similar ones together and entitle them. Therefore, whenever people see a specific pair of jeans, they may hold a basic impression and description on it, which under most occasions, is the very categories of jeans. Take our 501 as an example. It is easy to tell it belongs to women jeans and has boyfriend style from its look.

Beyond that, Levi’s, as the first brand to invent jeans and a representative symbol of popular culture and swag, creates a few unique characteristics that makes customers to distinguish itself from numerous other jeans. According to Levis Strauss Museum, there are a few characteristics of Levi’s, such as their orange or yellow thread, their signature arched back pocket stitching, and their famous coin pocket. These different elements help customers to remember Levi’s and separate Levi’s from other brands easily and efficiently, which established its unique brand image. When they see these elements on a pair of jeans, they can reflect automatically and unconsciously that it belongs to Levi’s. That’s way it is not hard to find that on these characteristics are also applied to Levi’s 501 origin even today.

(Group member: Shuqi Liu)

Iconic Mode

When trying to explain the iconic mode in semiotics, Peirce holds the idea that every picture (however conventional its method) is an icon. (ibid., 2.279 )


Pictures are received information which means that we need no formal education to get the message. The message is instantaneous. What comes to my mind at the first glance of the picture is that this is a picture of a jeans for Women, or, due to Peirce, we can say it is an icon of a jeans. Without the instructions below, me as a non-professional, cannot recognize whether this is a 501® or other types.

While after having done some researches and try to analyze this picture more seriously, it is not just a simple icon of a pair of jeans any more. It is a complex mixture of different layers of symbols.

From the perspective of iconic mode, there are several things that deserve discussing.

1)Personal Identification

In the preview picture of this jeans in the selling page, the face of the model, which contains clear clues about race, disappears.

Actually, not only about the race, the face contains most information for personal visual identification. All that is shown in the preview picture is a nice body wearing the 501® jeans. Personal identification, here, like what has been mentioned in Understanding Comics (Scott McCloud, 1993), is something about the audience involvement. It make sense that in order to embrace the potential consumers all around the world, Levis choose such kind of pictures in order to offer better personal identification to the consumers so that they would believe that these jeans might also look good on them.

However, in the opposite way, after clicking the preview picture for more details, the picture with model’s face come out?

So what actually leads to a change on the showing, or we may say, selling strategy here? Is this picture still attractive to consumers?

2)To Be Iconic 

“To be ‘iconic’ typically means that something would be expected to be instantly recognized as famous by any fully fledged member of a particular culture or subculture” (Daniel Chandler, 2002)

There is such a paragraph in the brand story of Levis in the official website.

In the brand story of Levis that is shown in its official website, Hippies patched and painted them. Rocker girls shredded and studded them. From Skinnies to Boyfriends to the iconic 501® Jean, women everywhere have made Levi’s® jeans their own.

It is quite understandable that people being involved in the fashion industry knows about 501 series as a really famous series of Levis. However, what somehow confuses me is that they put the 501® in parallel with skinnies, boyfriends, which are typical jeans types. By searching 501® in its official website, Skinnies and boyfriends are popular pants types, or to say models, but what does 501® mean?

Basing on my personal research, originally, 501 is also a classic jean’s type (model) designed by Levis with the characters of medium rise, straight tube and metal signatured buttons. The classic designing of 501 is a collection of several specific typical characters of jeans. Nowadays, every season, new design of 501 will come out with the basic classic designing characters as well as the specific fashion trends in that season, for example, different washing, grinding and worn-out effects.

However, what confuses me is that when looking at the official website, not all the products belong to 501 gains the basic characters — medium rise, straight tube and metal buttons. My explanation here is that as can be seen, the 501 appears with an ® which tells us that it has already been registered as a brand. I this way I guess the 501® is actually a different symbol from the 501 Levis jeans we (non-professionals) acknowledge. With this change, what is the really iconic symbol? The classic design of 501 Levis jeans or the 501® brand? To me, my answer is the design.

(Group member: Weilin Wang)

Symbolic Mode

On the symbolic level, Levi’s 501 jeans represent the pursuit of free spirit and confidence. In the depression era, the 501 jeans was produced and introduced to people who live on the East Coast and opted to the so-called style of “Western Chic” resembling that of cowboys. Levi’s 501 jeans, as partially an iconic symbol, embodies the societal meditation of quintessential characteristics of jeans. Affordable and historic as a pair of Levi’s 501 jeans is, it makes a lot of people feel confident, carefree and included according to an interview conducted by Solomen. Hence the dialogic nature of Levi’s 501 jeans can be seen as a ledge for people to engage in a large-scale conversation about sharing impersonalized responses and endorsement to the Western culture and American spirit. Alternatively, Levi’s 501 jeans can be seen the symbol and dialogic representation of America along with other iconic symbols such as Coca-cola and Harley Davidson, forming a cultural encyclopedia together.

Meanwhile, the object and interpretant level of the symbol of Levi’s 501 jeans are evolving over time as well. In the past, the Levi’s 501 jeans almost exclusively represented the manly chic, a masculine notion of fashion. Women who were enthusiastic demonstrator of denim and jeans style could sometimes be deemed as rough, reckless and treacherous. However, over the course of social changes and feminist movements, a possibility of generating myriad of new interpretant arises in re-defining women’s fashion as well as jeans. Jeans have already become a new fashion symbol able to afford more girlish style under the illustration of designers and bloggers. More and more boutiques try to feature jeans in their seasonal lookbooks, and more and more designers are willing to explore on the infinite attire combinatoriality of jeans. Thus, Levi’s gradually lose its influence in the fashion world, appearing more as a frugal and heritage choice for jeans. This serves potentially as an example of how sociocultural or socioeconomic conditions could reconstruct and recompose myriad of meanings, and how iconic symbol can lose its power of utterance over the time and decrease its likeliness to relegate the whole spectrum of cultural type or scheme.

(Group member: Shujun Wei)


Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics: The Basics. Routledge, Abingdon, Oxon;New York, NY;, 2017.

McCloud, Scott, 1960. Understanding Comics. William Morrow/HarperCollins, New York;Place of publication not identified;, 2008.