February 26, 1829 – Levi Strauss
In the 1960s, the gay guy ideal was smooth, lean, and white (diversity wasn’t a thing). In the 1970s, it morphed into a mustache, sideburns, untamed body hair, and tight jeans. By the 1980s, mustaches were out and big hair in. The 1990s brought us not only “Don’t Ask, Don’t tell”, but feathered hair, ironic tee-shirts, and stubble.
That 1970s look became known as the Castro Clone. Many gay guys liked to style themselves as an idealized working-class man. Castro Clone, of course, grew out of the heavily gay-populated Castro neighborhood in San Francisco when the modern Gay Rights movement, sparked by the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City and the Summer of Love, brought together a gay male urban community.
The Castro-clone was simple: leather or Levi’s jeans, checked or plaid shirt or a form-fitting tee-shirt, tight bell bottoms in the early 1970s, later more traditionally working-class 501s, Converse or boots; hair was relatively short and never something that would require hairspray. The look was modelled heavily on the greasers of the 1950s and 1960s, which was also an influence on Punk. The idea was to emphasize the wearer’s best physical attributes, so that your hard work at the gym was evident.
The Castro style returned in the first decade of the 21st century, particularly among LGBTQ hipsters, but then, it never really went away. I worked it in Levi 501s almost exclusively from 1977 until the 2010, when girth and mirth moved me to Levi 514s. With a greater acceptance of gay men, it became fashionable to be identify with your tribe. We were inspired by icons like Tom of Finland, and the “construction worker”, “policeman”, and leather-clad “biker” characters in the Village People, plus porn actor such as Al Parker, Richard Locke, and Jack Wrangler.
The combination of inexpensive masculine clothing gave us a gay look that was considered sexy and easy, yet suitable for mixing with straights. This enhanced LGBTQ recognition and pushed the community out of the closet in the late 20th century, with a more self-assured attitude. The look was a celebration of personal masculinity. Some fetishized the style while for others it was a sign of liberation, countering the homophobic stereotype that gay men were effeminate. A culture of idolizing masculinity emerged with rugged working-class men seen as one of the ideals, even if many gay men were middle-class professionals.
Catch this 1984 Levi’s ad with a young Stanley Tucci:
The gay magazines in the 1970s, such as Mandate, Playguy, and Honcho were filled with images of clones, both in feature spreads and advertisements. Gay porn help advanced the look.
For more than 150 years, Americans of different backgrounds clad in perhaps the most popular garment of all time have captured our attention imagination, think James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause (1955) or Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953).
The term ”jeans” appears first in 1795. French troops had taken their town, and Swiss bankers Jean-Gabriel and Jacques Eynard were entrusted with their supplies. They furnished them with uniforms cut from blue cloth called “Bleu de Genes”.
In 1851, Levi Strauss emigrated from Germany to New York to join his older brothers who ran a mercantile store. In 1853, he moved to San Francisco to open his own dry goods business. Jacob Davis was a Jewish tailor in Reno who bought bolts of cloth from the Levi Strauss & Co. In 1872, Davis wrote to Strauss asking to partner with him to patent and sell clothing reinforced with rivets. The copper rivets were to reinforce the points of stress, such as pocket corners and at the bottom of the button fly. Strauss accepted, and they received US patent No. 139,121 for an “Improvement in Fastening Pocket-Openings” in 1873.
Davis and Strauss experimented with different fabrics, first with brown cotton duck. But they found denim better for work pants, and they began using it to manufacture their new riveted pants.
Strauss’s jeans were simply sturdy trousers worn by factory workers, miners, farmers, and cattlemen throughout the American West. During this period, men’s jeans had the fly down the front, whereas women’s jeans had the fly down the left side. Strauss’s version had two pockets in the front and one on the back right with copper rivets. The small, riveted watch pocket was added by Strauss in the late 1870s. The Levi jean became a symbol of American ruggedness, grit, and freedom.
He was born Löb Strauss in Bavaria, the youngest son of Hirsch Strauss, a peddler. The Strauss family and other Jews in Bavaria were able to make a living and live peaceably enough, but they were still subjected to anti-Semitic restrictions under the Judenedikt, or Jew decree. The restrictions included how many Jews could live in a village and limited their movements. The edict also limited the possibility of starting a family, since a marriage had to be approved by the authorities. Jews also had to provide detailed evidence of family relationships and the people’s names.
So, in 1848, following in the footsteps of his older brothers, the teenage Levi made his way to New York, and five years later, because of the California Gold Rush, Levi made his way to California and established his wholesale dry-goods business.
Today, the company’s corporate headquarters is at Levi’s Plaza in San Francisco. Levi Strauss & Co. has long supported LGBTQ Rights, was one of the first major companies to integrate its work force. A portion of the AIDS quilt, stitched with denim, commemorates the lives of Levi Strauss & Co. employees and their loved ones taken by HIV/AIDS. The company received a perfect score of 100 points on the Human Rights Campaign‘s Corporate Equality Index and is also on their list of Best Places to Work for LGBTQ Equality.
The company and its founder were not always on the right side of history. Strauss gave into the anti-Chinese sentiment during a dark time in the 1870s known as the Yellow Peril. Intimidated by the riots of 1877, discharged all 180 Chinese workers from his factory.
Still, Strauss came to San Francisco in the middle of the 19th century and gained levels of success that Jews who had settled in other American cities had not. He benefited from a more hospitable and tolerant cultural environment in San Francisco, a pioneer town that remained impervious to the most virulent strains of anti-Semitism. In his mid-30s, he was already a well-known figure around the city. He was active in the business and cultural life of San Francisco, and actively supported the Jewish community, including the city’s first synagogue. There is a denim Torah ark cover at Struass’ synagogue, San Francisco’s Congregation Sha’ar Zahav. Despite his stature as an important businessman, he insisted that his employees call him Levi, and not Mr. Strauss.
Strauss was very possibly a queer. He never married and was not known to have any sort of relationship with a woman. When Strauss died in 1902, he left his company to his four nephews. His estate was worth about $125 million, equivalent to $4.5 billion in 2021 bucks.
Tidbit: handsome Daniel Sachs Goldman, the captivating trial attorney for majority counsel in the first impeachment of that disgraceful, white supremacist 45th president, is the grandson of Walter A. Haas, also a Jew from Bavaria, who worked at the Levi Strauss & Company. In 1928, he became president and served in that position until 1955; then served as chairman until 1970 and remained active in company affairs until his death in 1979. He is widely credited with “saving” the company, leading it through the Great Depression, racial integration at its factories, the global popularization of the Levi brand, and the creation of the Levi Strauss Foundation.
The best thing about Strauss story, particularly in our current political situation, is that the most American of garments was created by a couple of immigrants who came to America looking for the American dream.