Is this the oldest known pair of women’s jeans? Levi’s believes it’s finally sewed up the answer to that question.
Levi Strauss & Co. announced Tuesday that it has acquired what the company believes to be the oldest pair existing of blue jeans made specifically for women, from a vintage clothes collector who spotted them at an estate sale. They’re high-waisted, boasting copper rivets, belt loops and a back cinch (a way to adjust the waistline before people got used to wearing belts).
The owner of the jeans, Viola Longacre (later Viola Bedford), a teacher who died at 100 in 2014, wore them while attending summer sessions held in tents and cabins in the Sierra Mountains as a student at what was then Fresno State College, where she received a bachelor’s and master’s degree, according to Longacre’s daughter Bette. The pants date to the early 1930s, sometime before 1934, which is when Lady Levi’s were first released. The pants that previously held the honor of being the oldest women’s jeans in the Levi Strauss & Co. Archives in San Francisco were a pair of these Lady Levi’s, nicknamed “Harriet” after Harriet Atwood, who bought the pair to wear to Soda Springs Ranch in Rimrock, Ariz.
The new acquisition, nicknamed “Viola” after their owner, predates that better-known style of women’s jeans. The pants would have been sold in some kind of hometown store, but that make of jeans did not appear in catalogs.
Company historian Tracey Panek believes the fact that its back patch is made out of cloth rather than leather suggests that they were part of a rare batch of less expensive jeans that the company must have produced as an experiment to test out whether women would take to that style.
But what’s even more unusual about the jeans is the time period in which they were worn. While men in manual-labor professions had been wearing jeans since at least the 1880s (and Levi’s acquired the patent to make them in 1873), they would still have been a striking choice for a woman like Viola.
The company created the Lady Levi’s after noticing that some women were wearing their dad’s or brother’s jeans, but the pants wouldn’t become mainstream among women for another decade, when women who jumped into the war effort needed sportswear that could get a little messy. Jeans would protect welders in shipyards from the sparks flying, for instance. So the fact that Longacre would be wearing them before 1934 is “really unusual,” according to Panek.