Levi’s historian Tracey Panek will discuss “The History of Levi Strauss & Co,” in Blue Jeans Jam’s Jeaneology series.
When it comes to the history of denim, one business has it sewed up: Levi’s. After all, it was the company’s founder Levi Strauss who, in partnership with Reno tailor Jacob Davis, began producing the world’s first blue jeans.
For some time, Davis’ invention of riveted denim pants was a matter of little-known trivia among Renoites. Lately, however, residents of the Biggest Little City in the World have begun embracing the town’s status as the birthplace of America’s most iconic contribution to global fashion.
The Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority is presenting its inaugural Blue Jeans Jam this month, a celebration of the denim lifestyle set for Oct. 2-4. The festival will include music, food, a bustling denim marketplace and scholarly presentations by experts on the cultural impact of blue jeans.
One speaker in the Jeaneology series is Levi’s historian Tracey Panek, who will expound on “The History of Levi Strauss & Co” from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. Oct. 3 in the Casino Ballroom at Circus Circus.
“It’s a fun thing, and I think it’s really appropriate to be having an event like this,” Panek said. “I’m surprised it hasn’t happened sooner.”
Panek took a post managing the Levi Strauss & Co. Archives in 2014. Her gig includes gathering and sharing background on the threads of the company’s more than 150-year history. She also assists designers and others looking to peruse Levi’s vast collection of historic materials.
Silver State a benchmark in Levi’s history
The Silver State is undoubtedly front-and-center in Levi’s history. Being the company’s namesake, Strauss is the historic face of the Levi’s company. But Davis -- who used Levi Strauss & Co fabric to make the first pair of riveted denim jeans in 1870 and then patented the design in partnership with Strauss -- holds a special place in the collective heart of the denim giant.
“It was absolutely the collaboration between Davis and Strauss that brought blue jeans to the world,” Panek said.
Neither the enterprising tailor nor the dry goods purveyor-turned-garment industry magnate wore blue jeans themselves. After all, denim garments were originally associated with hand-blistering manual labor. But Davis, who settled in Nevada after immigrating from Russia, and the German-born Strauss are now inextricably linked with blue jeans in the annals of history.
“It’s an immigrant’s story,” Panek said. “Davis and Strauss shared a lot in common. They were both adventurous and willing to try some new things in a new place.”
Panek not only celebrates denim-related stories as part of her work. Like most Americans, she has her own tales to tell. In a profile posted on the Levi’s website shortly after she landed the job, Panek shared that she and her husband were both clad in 501s when they met.
By the time she slid into her button-flys, a good pair of Levi’s was a must-have item for anyone hoping to look stylish. Still, Panek believes blue jeans’ working-class history is a large part of their coolness factor.
“I like to call them the grassroots garments, because they were created for working men -- from ranchers and cowboys, miners and railroad engineers to just manual laborers in general,” she said. “From that very humble beginning, they worked their way up in the economic strata of society, and they are now a global phenomenon.”
A love of stories
Panek, who prior to coming to LS&Co. spent 14 years as an AAA historian, grew up enthralled by her mom’s anecdotes about growing up in New Zealand. Her love of tales is what led her to the study of history. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the subject, and knew she was on a path to making her living by immersing herself in the past.
Still, Panek never guessed she would have a job as lively as the one she currently enjoys. She juggles family life, which includes raising three children, with travel far and wide. She chronicles her adventures, whether at home or abroad, on her “Unzipped” blog on LeviStrauss.com.
A September “Unzipped” post describes her mingling with 1,000 Rosie the Riveters at a rally held at the shipyards in Richmond, Calif. A number of the attendees, who were all clad in jeans and red kerchiefs, were among the original Rosies.
For many women who took manufacturing jobs in World War II to replace men serving abroad, it represented their first opportunity to wear blue jeans. But there were some “early adopters,” gals who wore jeans well in advance of the 1934 introduction of the first women’s denim line, Lady Levi’s.
“My husband’s grandmother, who lived to be 101, was one,” Panek said. “She was a horsewoman in the west, and she borrowed her brother’s jeans because there weren’t any for her.”
Her previous “Unzipped” post detailed a trip to Japan to mark the 80th anniversary of women’s denim. To commemorate the occasion -- and to compete with those ubiquitous yoga pants that have taken hold in recent years -- Levi’s launched a new line of women’s jeans marked by a form-fitting silhouette and more stretch.
Going 'back to our roots'
Panek feels extremely fortunate to be able to do what she loves.
“What drew me to this field is the idea of story, and being able to find and tell those stories is one of the great parts of my job,” she said. “Levi Strauss & Co. is one of the original San Francisco startups; it began back in the Gold Rush. Virtually everything we do in the company today goes back to our roots.”
The archives are not just of historic import, Panek noted. Levi’s designers often use old jeans as models for new ones.
“They’ll create stitch-by-stitch reproductions, featuring everything from stains and wear-marks to stitching and rivets,” she said. “What’s wonderful about blue jeans is they are very individual. When a person wears them, they adhere to their body in a way that’s unique to them.”
She gives as an example a pair of blue jeans worn by Roy Rogers that reside in the Levi’s archives.
“He had a pocket watch that he kept in his pocket regularly,” Panek said. “And there’s an outline in his jeans where that pocket watch was.”