Blue Jeans: Iconic Western Duds

Update: Read a differing opinion about this from associate curator Angelica Daneo.

As an iconic example of western wear, jeans have inevitably made their way into western American art.

On Level 7 of the North Building, check out Gunfight by N. C. Wyeth, an early twentieth-century painting that depicts a saloon fight among cowboys. The rowdy gang wears stereotypically western duds: leather boots, long-sleeved work shirts, broad-brimmed hats, and, of course, blue jeans. Next to the painting stands a pair of Levi’s® on loan from the Levi Strauss & Co. Archives in San Francisco. Don’t be fooled; although it looks like we borrowed the jeans from curator Thomas Smith’s closet, the pair actually dates to 1901-22, around the time that Wyeth painted Gunfight. Both are around 100 years old and yet look remarkably contemporary.

Jeans are ubiquitous. Practically everyone owns a pair. Chances are many of you reading this are wearing jeans right now. While styles have changed over the decades, most jeans today resemble their nineteenth-century predecessors, sturdy denim work pants developed by Levi Strauss, a Bavarian immigrant living in San Francisco in the mid-1800s. With the help of tailor Jacob Davis, Strauss designed durable trousers that met the needs of working men in the American West: miners, farmers, and cowboys. At first, Strauss’s “waist overalls” were made of tent canvas, a strong, yet cheap, material. Later, Strauss riveted the seams for increased durability and replaced canvas with indigo-dyed denim, resulting in the distinctive design with which we’re so familiar.

You might be wondering how we know the age of these jeans. Well, it’s all in the details. Levi’s® jeans produced after 1901 but before 1922 feature two back pockets but no belt loops (added in 1922). Pre-1901 jeans had just one back pocket on the right. The vintage pair we’ve borrowed has two pockets and a cinch belt in the back and suspender buttons rather than belt loops. These stylistic details place the pair in the 1901-22 timeframe.

Blue jeans and other types of western clothing are the focus of Western Duds, on view this summer in the Betsy Magness Western Galleries (North Building, Level 7). As part of the museum-wide exhibition Spun: Adventures in Textiles, Western Duds highlights four paintings paired with the uniquely western textiles they portray and celebrates western clothing and accessories as sources of artistic inspiration. Wander the galleries to find unexpected objects on display. In addition to the Levi’s® jeans, look for a fiesta-goer’s extravagant embroidered shawl, a vaquero’s vibrant serape, and a Pueblo woman’s deerskin boots.

Image: Jeans on loan from Levi Strauss & Co. Archives, San Francisco. Level seven of the North Building.