A BBC documentary on one of the most popular, classic, and influential garments of all time: Levis’ 501 jeans. Well worth a watch.
The Meaning of Selvedge Then and Now
Following Jesse’s great post last week on selvedge denim, I thought I’d share some scans from an old 1997 issue of Continental Restyling — an important lifestyle magazine for the Hepcat scene from 1993 until 2000. This was a publication for people passionate about 1950s American culture, rockabilly music, and a certain style of vintage clothes (e.g. circle skirts, rock’n’roll shirts, Hawaiian shirts, and blue jeans). In this issue (now almost 20 years old, if you can believe), we see what the selvedge stripe used to mean to a certain group of vintage clothing enthusiasts.
What Selvedge Used to Mean to Some People
In his article titled “Blue Jeans: The Hepcat’s Guide to Vintage Denim,” Thommy Burns writes:
I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen young Hepcats (guys and girls) who have taken the time to seek out the right shirts, jackets, shoes, etc. only to have their blue jeans be the missing link. Let me tell you, vintage jeans are very different to those available today and are an important key to achieving an authentic look. Jeans in the ‘50s were made with different dyes (believe it or not) and different fabric to those today – they look different when new and the differences become more apparent when they’re worn in.
Levi’s are my personal favourites. They have always been the world’s most popular jeans and therefore more Cats wore them in the ‘50s, it just stands to reason. Vintage Levi’s have a beautiful ultra-dark indigo colour that gets a distinct and attractive “streaky” grain as it fades.
And how do you spot vintage Levi’s? Well, there are a few things you can look for, but important among them is the selvedge stripe:
Another important facet of vintage Levi’s is the selvedge edge the fabric, visible on a turn up. This is a finished white edge inside the pants, on the outer seam. […] All Levi’s made up to the 1960s had selvedge, this makes it an integral part of an authentic ‘50s look.
What Selvedge Means Today
Jesse’s right when he says that turning up your cuffs to show the little selvedge stripe means “I care.” This was true for vintage clothing enthusiasts in Japan in the ’80s and it’s true for denim enthusiasts today.
It used to mean other things as well, however. It used to mean not only that the denim was woven on narrower shuttle looms, but also something specific about what kind of dyes were used, how the yarns were dyed, and how the resulting jeans were finished. In other words, people cared about that little selvedge stripe because it meant something about how the jeans would fade (sound familiar?). It was an indication of a greater set of production choices, originally made in the mid-century by companies such as Levi’s and Lee.
Today, companies can produce selvedge denim in ways that was never done in the early- to mid-century. Generally speaking, the presence of that little stripe still means that the jeans are meant to fade a certain way, but exactly how those jeans fade is a lot more variable. The connection between selvedge and the broader picture of production methods has evolved a lot over time.
Reducing Clothes to Details
There are dozens of companies now offering selvedge denim. Some even offer “fake selvedge jeans,” where a strip of selvedge is sewn onto the bottom of the cuffs, so they can be flipped up and made to look fashionable.
So what’s the difference between one pair of jeans and another? As Jesse noted, everything. Selvedge denim jeans are defined not just by that little stripe, but also what kind of cotton was used, how that cotton was spun into yarn, how those yarns were dyed, how those dyed yarns were woven into denim, how that denim was made into jeans, and how those resulting jeans were treated in the “finishing” process. All those aspects will determine how a pair of jeans will fade and age over time, and it’s for this quality why some people will choose one pair over another.
Which for me, says something about how we view clothes. Presumably, we got to this place because people reduced jeans to just that little stripe — whether because they equated selvedge with quality, or because they heard selvedge stripes were fashionable right now. This gave companies more of an incentive to produce. As Jesse mentioned, you can buy selvedge denim nowadays for $40 from Converse, $89 from The Gap, or $350 from The Flat Head. In some ways, I think this is great, as not everyone can (or wants to) spend a lot of money on jeans, and it’s good to have options.
On the other hand, it’s useful to remember there’s no “one thing” that will ever tell you the whole story about a garment. That “thing” can include country-of-origin labels, care tags that say 100% cashmere, stitches that look to be hand sewn, buttonholes that are working on sleeves, and little colored stripes on jeans. Clothing production is much more complicated than what those things reveal. When deciding what to purchase, think about the bigger picture of how something was made and don’t rely on just one detail.
What Is Selvedge Denim? Why Does A Selvedge Matter?
I grew up in a fabric-obsessed house. My mom dedicated a whole bedroom to an enormous pedal loom, and when we were broke, she’d trade scarves and shawls for haircuts. She doesn’t have a loom anymore, but she still buys and sells vintage fabric on the side. The sound of a clattering shuttle and the hand of a beautiful fabric are baked into my DNA.
The selvedge (or selvage) in “selvedge denim” is a question of weaving, but it’s also a question of symbolism. I’ll explain.
The Woven Difference
Let’s start with the technical. Fabric is woven by a loom. Shuttle looms, which were the standard until the mid-20th century, weave a relatively narrow length of fabric, with finished edges. The edges are called the selvedge. You can see them above - they’re the things with the colorful stripes.
Without a selvedge, a seam like the ones above would have to be finished with thread. Turn a t-shirt inside-out and you’ll see edges finished this way. The role of the finishing here is to prevent the weave from unraveling at the fabric’s edge.
The Loom Diaspora
Shuttle looms fell out of broad use in the years after World War II, when more efficient technologies were developed. These new projectile looms didn’t require a bulky shuttle and could produce much wider lengths of fabric. As demand for jeans (and in turn, denim) ramped up, it was met by these new, hyper-efficient machines. But: wide fabric lengths and superfast industrial machines mean that instead of using the woven edges that the old looms wove, fabric was cut and the edges bound with thread. That’s still how the fabric edges of most mass-market jeans are finished today.
As these new machines were introduced, the old machines were decommissioned, and the story goes that over the years, many found their way to Japan, where some had landed in the post World War reconstruction. (Whether that story’s true is a matter of debate.) In the 1980s, an artisinal denim movement, fueled by a passion for Americana, emerged in the far East, and in the 2000s, it found its way to the US. At the same time, America’s textile production was dwindling to nearly nothing.
Selvedge As Cultural Signifier
The selvedge became a cultural signifier. Japanese enthusiasts could turn their cuff slightly to show that they either had vintage jeans - made when the old looms were still in service - or they had new jeans made from fabric woven on old looms. In large part, that’s still what the selvedge means today. Sure, the selvedge edge is a little less likely to fray than the bound edge, but when was the last time the edge of the fabric in your jeans frayed?
When you pay for selvedge, you’re buying a symbolic message that you care, and a message from the manufacturer that they do, too. Here’s a parallel: traditionally, the bottom-most buttonhole of a shirt has been horizontally oriented. It maybe has some practical purpose, but mostly the presence of that horizontal buttonhole means: “I care,” for both wearer and manufacturer.
So Why Does It Matter?
These days, you can buy selvedge denim for $40 from Converse, $89 from The Gap or $350 from The Flat Head. The fabrics and details on these jeans are likely very different. The design choices and cut are different. The marketing is different. Almost everything, in other words, can be different.
The thing they share is that little colored stripe.
“I should say that he ought to have one pair for Sunday, another pair for Monday, and so on till number seven has been worn. Extra-vagant you say? Not a bit of it. On the contrary, seven pairs of trousers worn in this way will last much longer than seven pairs worn indiscriminately — say one pair for a week, the next pair for a fortnight, and so on. You may take it as an indisputable fact that a pair of trousers worn for three consecutive days will be out of shape at the end of the third day, however good the material and cut may be. Of course, I don’t mean that you wear them for three days and nights — don’t be absurd.”— Edward Spencer on trousers. Written in his book Clothes & the Man, which was published in 1901 — well before men started to wear the same pair of jeans every day for six months before washing.
We Got It For Free: 3sixteen’s Double Black Jeans
I wear “tailored” clothes about half the week (i.e. sport coats, dress shirts, wool trousers, and the like), but for the other half, I dress pretty casually. Lately, that’s surprisingly meant black jeans. I off-handedly mentioned on Twitter once that I’d like to get a pair, and Andrew at 3sixteen kindly offered to gift me one of theirs.
I received them about a year ago, and admit they sat untouched in my closet for a while until I figured what to wear with them. Once I found some combinations I liked, however, they’ve been in regular rotation at least once or twice a week. On cool days, I like to wear them with a heathered grey sweatshirt and slightly pebbled, black leather A-2. For warmer weather, I swap out the sweatshirt for a grey or white t-shirt, or ditch the jacket completely and just use an old chambray. I find golden tan leather accessories - such as wallets and belts - tend to work better than dark brown. White sneakers make for an easy pairing, but I’ve come to like black boots and sneakers as well. And, for what it’s worth, I’ve found that I like the legs a bit longer, so they “stack,” rather than having them cuffed like I do on my indigo jeans.
As many readers know, denim, like all fabrics, is woven with yarns running lengthwise (known as the warp), and transverse threads running the width (known as the weft). Typically, the blue warps are the first to “give out,” which is why good denim fades to a “streaky” white/ blue color over time.
3sixteen uses this fact to achieve different effects in each of their four black jean models. Their “Shadow Selvedge,” for example, has indigo warp and black weft yarns, which mean they start out looking black(ish), but fade to a beautiful high-contrast blue over time. The “Black Two Tones” are made with a black warp and white weft, so it behaves similarly to a “regular” pair of jeans. And the “Black Hexes” and “Double Blacks” (the second of which is what I have) use black yarns for both the warp and weft, which means they’re more resistant to fading, but eventually turn to a really nice grey with enough wear.
Each model is cut in their standard slim tapered (ST) and straight legged (SL) patterns. And, like the rest of their line, everything is made in the USA from an exclusive fabric they have woven for them by Japan’s Kuroki Mills. (This is notable because many companies use the same fabrics as everyone else). There are also nice details, such as custom detailed buttons, gunmetal rivets, and a uniquely high-quality leather used for the back patch.
Casual wear today largely means jeans and chinos, and in some circles, it can even mean just jeans. Style enthusiasts have written a lot on the usefulness of white and light blue denim. I’d add black to that list. They’re a bit “edgier” than the other two alternatives, and give some appreciable diversity to a genuinely casual wardrobe. They also make you look much tougher than you are, which is useful if you’re a grad student who spends his free time blogging about how people can look much tougher than they are.
Real People: Sport Coats with Jeans
My friend David in New York City is one of the best dressed guys I know. He’s a fine and rare wine expert, running a company called Grand Cru Wine Consulting with his business partner Robert Bohr. They’re a concierge service of sorts - advising wine aficionados and buying bottles for them at wine auctions. The Wall Street Journal wrote about their company not too long ago, and David was photographed in a fantastic navy double breasted suit (which was made for him by our shared tailor, Steed).
Above, he’s seen wearing a green tweed he recently received from Steed. I’ve said on a number of occasions that I think sport coats with jeans are very hard to pull off. When it’s done well, it’s usually with tweeds.
It’s difficult to tell from the photo, but the cloth is woven with a unique combination of both herringbone and barleycorn patterns, giving it a very interesting and classic look. There’s also a blue and chestnut overcheck, which you can faintly make out in the photos. David chose some really tasteful and original details, such as the one button front and single button sleeves. Most sport coats have three or four buttons at the sleeves, while a single button is more of an old-school casual/ sporting detail, particularly found in Southern Italy. The soft shoulder construction and slightly full chest and upper back are signatures in a Steed jacket, and I think it fits David’s style excellently.
Tweeds and jeans go well together because of their equally casual nature and rustic background. With anything too smooth or slick - either in texture or sensibility - you run the risk of looking strangely dressy up top and too casual down bottom. The most obvious faux pas is to wear a suit jacket with jeans, but even as you go down the scale in formality, the combination can look very odd. A tweed sport coat with a pair of jeans, with an equally casual, blue button-down collar shirt (sans tie) and a pair of boots though? Excellent.
Incidentally, if anyone is interested in getting something from Steed, they’re touring the US in February and March. They do both bespoke and made-to-measure, and you can see their travel itinerary here.
Actor Jason Mantzoukas is one of the funniest guys I know, and he’s also a big Put This On supporter - he even appeared in one of our episodes. That’s only part of why I so enjoy the Tumblr Jason Mantzoukas Wearing A White Oxford Shirt And Blue Jeans.
The Beauty of a Naturally Aged Leather Belt
I’ve been wanting an undyed leather to be to wear with jeans for a while now. Something thick, heavy, and substantial, made from a material that will beautifully age with use and time. The Flat Head wallet I posted a few weeks ago is made from an undyed leather, and has gone from a pale tan to a handsome, golden honey brown.
I finally picked one up from Don’t Mourn Organize. It’s a small Utah company run by a guy named Scott, who makes belts, wallets, and full-sized bags from almost every kind of leather you can think of (vegetable tanned leathers, shell cordovan, and even some exotics). Since everything is made-on-order, customizations are also usually possible.
Saddle, Bridle, and Harness Leathers
For undyed vegetable-tanned leathers, Scott has saddle and harness. For those unfamiliar, saddle and harness, along with bridle, make up the three main types of leather used in English saddlery (the art of making leather goods for horse riding). As their names suggest, bridle leather is traditionally used for making bridle reins, harness for making horse harnesses, and saddle for making saddle seats. These are very, very robust materials - the kind of stuff that will last for decades if well taken care of.
The difference between them is simply in the “finishing.” Saddle comes fairly “raw,” meaning it has little oil or wax content. This makes it less pliable, feel drier in the hand, and be a bit more susceptible to water stains. Bridle, on the other hand, is very smooth and polished, and the leather itself is more compressed. Readers might be familiar with it through Swaine Adeney Brigg briefcases, Ettinger wallets, or belts from Narragansett and Equus. Lastly, harness is perhaps somewhere in the middle – it has more wax and oil content than saddle, but it retains a bit more grain that bridle.
I went with harness for my belt because of how easy it is to maintain. I had Scott use a buckle I had laying around and shave the thickness of the leather down to 0.25”. That makes it considerably more substantial than most belts you’d find on the market, but leaves it still comfortable to wear. Total cost? $65, including shipping.
In the first photo above, you can see how my belt has aged after a week’s work of use and three applications of Obenauf’s Heavy Duty LP. The second photo is my belt brand new, sitting on Scott’s workshop table. The third photo is one of Scott’s own belts, which he’s had for about a year. As you can see it’s a beautiful russet brown, which I think looks terrific against a pair of broken-in raw jeans. I can’t wait for mine to get as nice.
Levis’ 1947 501s
Most high-end jeans on the market today are some version of a semi-low rise, slim-fit cut. I actually like that kind of cut, and wear a slim, straight-legged pair myself, but folks who want something with a higher rise and fuller leg may want to consider the 1947 model of Levis’ classic 501s.
The 501s, as many folks will know, is one of the most classic jeans ever designed, but throughout its history, it’s gone through a number of iterations (some of them being very differently styled than the others). The 1947 edition was the first one produced after the end of WWII, and as a result, featured details that were previously lost due to national cutbacks in the effort to win the war. The watch pockets were made with rivets, for example, and the back pockets had arcuates (those double needle, “bat wing” stitches). It was also made with a classic slim-straight cut - slimmer than the company’s current version of the 501, but with a bit more room in the leg than many slim-fit jeans today.
You can find the 1947 model through Levis’ Vintage Clothing, a sub-line of Levis that specializes in vintage reproductions. Retail price is pretty expensive, coming in at ~$250, but sometimes you can find them on sale (Vente Privee had them earlier this year with prices starting at $55, but that was an anomaly). You can also hunt for a pair on eBay, where they typically go for ~$150-175.
Other good options to consider include 3sixteen’s CS-100x, which is based on the 1947 501s. That one is made with the company’s signature 14.5 oz raw selvedge denim, which is woven exclusively for them by a mill in Japan. From my experience, their denim fades well, and has the added bonus of being flannel-soft inside when you first get them (though, the denim itself is still rigid and tough). Japanese denim brand Sugar Cane also has a repro, simply called the 1947, as well as two models called the Hawaii and Okinawa. Those are cut just like the 1947, but feature crazier denim and detailing.
"In the 1930s there was this tendency in Hollywood to portray everyone as rich. Even if they were doing a poor man’s dance, they were all so nicely clothed, gowned, coiffured. That’s why I decided to wear white socks, loafers, T-shirts, and blue jeans." —Gene Kelly
White socks, though?