Deep-Seated Materialism: the Case of Levi's 501 Jeans

Michael R. Solomon, New York University
ABSTRACT - A small number of products possess extraordinary symbolic significance to consumers; they are an integral part of popular culture. This paper is a case-study of one such product, Levi's 501 jeans. Quantitative and qualitative data from a variety of sources is employed to examine the social functions performed by this icon of material culture. Functions discussed include social reassurance, consumer personalization, attributions of "magical" qualities, mnemonic capabilities, and ceremonial rites.
[ to cite ]:
Michael R. Solomon (1986) ,"Deep-Seated Materialism: the Case of Levi's 501 Jeans", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, eds. Richard J. Lutz, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 619-622.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, 1986      Pages 619-622

DEEP-SEATED MATERIALISM: THE CASE OF LEVI'S 501 JEANS

Michael R. Solomon, New York University

[The author would like to thank Levi Strauss & Co. for its CooPeration in the preparation of this paper.]

ABSTRACT -

A small number of products possess extraordinary symbolic significance to consumers; they are an integral part of popular culture. This paper is a case-study of one such product, Levi's 501 jeans. Quantitative and qualitative data from a variety of sources is employed to examine the social functions performed by this icon of material culture. Functions discussed include social reassurance, consumer personalization, attributions of "magical" qualities, mnemonic capabilities, and ceremonial rites.

INTRODUCTION

One way to view products is as material artifacts of social life (Solomon 1983). The use of products as vessels to define and enact social relationships, aspirations, fantasies, and so on leads us away from the emphasis on the products bought by society and toward an emphasis on the products valued by society (cf. Belk 1984a). Consumers form deep and complex attachments to some products; such phenomena deserve greater attention by consumer researchers and other social scientists.

In this spirit, the present paper is a case study of a product which is a cultural icon. A select number of products are such an integral part of contemporary culture that they attain an almost archetypal status. At the least, consumers' allegiance to these material artifacts certainly transcends conventional wisdom regarding brand loyalty or the product life cycle. A list of such products would probably include the Ford Mustang, "Star Wars," the Hershey Bar, Elvis Presley, Marlboro cigarettes, and Coca-Cola (the old version). The recent outcry over the changing of the Coke formula by loyal consumers attests to the "special" place such products occupy in our social system.

In the apparel category, Levi's 501 jeans occupy a dominant (and almost mythical) position in American material culture. The jeans are worn by a cross-section of society, and while it is tempting to regard the product as just another fashion item, its endurance as a staple for over 130 years belies the common vicissitudes of fashion. The unique stature of Levi's as a cultural emblem becomes apparent when one considers that this product is represented in the Americana collection of the Smithsonian Institution, and that the name "Levi's" is included as an entry in Webster's Collegiate Dictionary.

This paper will begin to explore the relationship between Levi's 501 jeans and their wearers. It will focus upon the iconic functions played by the jeans via an examination of several sources of data. These sources include a national telephone survey of 501 owners, an archival examination of letters written to the company by consumers over the last thirty years, information supplied by the company, and data on company performance. Examination of subject verbatims, aggregate responses, letters, etc. will be combined to examine some social and intrapersonal benefits ascribed to the product by consumerS .

The intent of this short paper is not to provide a complete history of the product, nor a satisfactory explanation for its popularity. Instead, it is an initial attempt to profile an example of a relationship between consumers and a product which cannot be fully explained by a logical positivist approach to consumption. Despite its subjectivity, this attachment and kindred phenomena deserve a place in the realm of consumer research.

Company Background

Levi Strauss & Co., based in San Francisco, is the world's largest branded apparel manufacturer. Its motto is "Quality never goes out of style." According to the annual report, net income in 1984 was $41.4 million on sales of $2.5 billion. As of the end of 1984, the company employed 37,000 people in over 100 manufacturing and distribution centers.

Product lines are sold in more than 40,000 retail outlets in the U.S. and in over 70 foreign countries. The company spent $153 million on advertising in 1984; much of this expenditure was associated with sponsorship of the Olympics (the entire 750-member U.S. team was provided with Levi's outfits). The New York Times (7/19/84) estimates Levi's market share at 21%. Its closest competitor is Lee. which holds 12% of the denim jean market.

The company notes that last year's net income fell to its lowest level since 1974. This decline was attributed to such factors as a shift in taste away from basic jeans and toward fashion jeans, weak foreign currencies, expanded production capacity coupled with a flattened jeans market, and strained relationships with some retailers.

Many of the company's problems can be attributed to shifts in clothing symbolism desired by consumers. The major manufacturers, encouraged by a boom beginning in 1981 (and spurred by the release of the movie "Urban Cowboy"), increased production and became complacent about a market which would become flat in later years (The New York Times, 7/19/84). The overall sluggishness of this market is often attributed to the maturing of the baby boom generation. According to industry sources, consumers over 24 tend to buy fewer jeans, and to wear them longer. As will be seen, the extraordinary longevity of Levi's is a mixed blessing for the company.

Despite attempts to diversify product offerings (e.g., a new line designed by Perry Ellis), the original 501 line is still the strongest performer. This is the "basic" blue jean, which is distinguished by a number of features, including the shrink-to-fit fabric which is guaranteed to shrink, wrinkle and fade, the button fly, a waistband patch, the red tab on the right-hand back pocket, and a watch pocket.

The company at some level seems to grasp that its competitive advantage lies in consumer loyalty to its core product --as evidenced by its frequent use of the copy point "We put a little blue jean in everything we make." Levi's 501's continue to be the best-selling jeans in the world, according to the 1984 annual report. In an effort to expand the popularity of this style east of the Mississippi, the company in 1984 launched a $36 million advertising campaign, which it claims is the largest program ever undertaken on behalf of a single apparel product. The annual report states that unit sales of 501 jeans were up almost 20 percent from the previous year.

Product Background: The 501 Blues

The product was invented by Levi Strauss (1829-1902), an Austrian immigrant who peddled dry goods to prospectors in California during the gold rush. He originally intended to sell rolls of canvas for tents and wagon covers, but realized that the material he had brought with him from New York might serve a better purpose. Strauss seemed to exhibit a real marketing orientation, as he responded to the complaints of miners that they could not find pants which would last. The first pants he sold were tailored from heavyweight brown canvas, and they were assigned lot number 501. Strauss switched during the 1850's to a tough cotton fabric made in Nimes, France called "serge de Mimes," which Americans soon came to pronounce as "denim." The term "jeans" originated with the French as well, who identified sailors from Genoa by their heavy cotton pants. These pants were called "genes," a derivation of the French word for Genoa.

Product evolution. Over the years, the pants acquired such distinguishing trademarks as copper rivets, a leather patch depicting two horses struggling to pull the pants apart, and a stitched pattern on the back pockets. This pattern, according to company literature, has been in use longer than any other American apparel trademark. The copper rivets on the back pockets were later replaced due to complaints about the scratching of school desks, saddles, and automobile paint. In the late 1930's, the rivet in the crotch was removed when the president of the company crouched too close to a campfire and the flames heated the rivet to the point of discomfort.

Product diffusion. The jeans remained a purely Western phenomenon until the late 1930's, where cowboys would keep one pair for work and one pair for dress. The onset of the Depression prompted many ranchers to entertain Eastern "dudes" to produce extra income. These vacationers bought the jeans to emulate Western chic, and then co-opted the style by bringing the pants home (perhaps as an ostentatious symbol of ability to travel during the Depression).

During World War II, the production of 501 jeans was declared an essential industry, and only those engaged in defense work were permitted to purchase them. The back stitching was, however declared to be an unnecessary use Of thread by the War Production Board. The company substituted orange paint, which led to some concern by conSumerS that they were receiving counterfeit jeans.

After the war, the company shifted its marketing efforts to a younger segment. The product's symbolic status was transformed by its identification with James Dean, whose moodiness and independence bordering on rebellion captivated many members of this generation.

The company has at times attempted to encourage this association, as evidenced by the successful advertising campaign centered around the mysterious "Travis" and based on a still from the movie "Giant." Nonconformist values were also catalyzed by Marlon Brando, who appeared in the 1954 film "The Wild Ones" with the symbolic entourage of leather jacket, motorcycle, and Levi's 501 jeans.

The independence associated with the jeans was carried over into the politicized era of the 1960's. The pants were intimately associated with the youth culture of that time. An emphasis on the core value of individuality was abetted by the numerous personalizing operations performed on the jeans. Many permutations of tie-dying, stitchery and patchwork profilerated, with many consumers using Levi's 501's as a common symbolic canvas.

This overlaying of meaning is consistent with Belk's (1984b) observation that symbolism is often added to a product after its purchase. A possible irony here is that this trend toward the embellishment of pants as a form of status display laid the foundation for the popularity of signature goods and other forms of elaborately detailed designer jeans, which until recently posed a major threat to the basic Levi's.

Product benefits. The set of objective product benefits associated with Levi's 501's may help to explain the psychic benefits which account for their popularity, longevity, and consumer loyalty. The company stresses that 1) the design has virtually remained unchanged for well over a century; 2) the pants shrink-to-fit, which allows consumers to create their own personal fit; and 3) the fabric softens and becomes increasingly comfortable with each washing. These proclaimed benefits can be used to infer a set of higher-level benefits: The product offers 1) the reassurance of tradition, 2) the capacity for personalization, and 3) it appreciates in (psychic) value as it ages.

These three benefits are the opposite of many contemporary fashion products, which are characterized by novelty, social acceptance, and inevitable obsolescence. In this sense, the jeans may be thought of as "anti-fashion" and these properties may begin to explain the unique attachment of many consumers to them over the years.

Some Social Functions of levi's 501's: Bases of Attachment

Instrumentality

Confidence.The function of clothing and other expressive products as facilitators of social role-playing has been discussed elsewhere (e.g., Solomon 1983; Solomon and Anand 1985). According to this perspective, product symbolism is used by consumers to place themselves in the correct role and thus retrieve the script appropriate to that role. Unimpeded access to this script results in confidence regarding one's ability to play the role; inappropriate or absent symbolism impedes role performance

Various disciplines and perspectives have acknowledged the role of material objects in creating or reinforcing security. For example, object-relations theorists in clinical psychology feel that attachment to objects stems from their use as compensation for separation from a mother figure (e.g., Fairbairn 1954). Developmental psychologists have found that the soft, comfortable aspects of a security blanket or article of clothing are the most effective means of reinforcing a sense of security and play a role in identity formation (e.g., Belk 1984b; Weisberg and Russell 1971). Similarly, Furby (1978) notes that control is the main reward quality of objects. Attachment makes salient the role of possessor, which enhances self-confidence. In a recent phone survey of 200 Levi's 501's owners, 10% of the males and 23% of the females used the word "confident" when asked to describe how they felt when wearing the pants. The reliance on the products as a social prop is highlighted by some examples of individual responses to the question: "How do you feel when YOU wear your Levi's 501's jeans?":

*"Like I don't have to worry about what I'm wearing." (#2017)

*"You don't feel like an outsider." (#2076)

*"I usually feel like I'm 'with-it'...I look as good as any chick there...I feel confident." (#1052)

*"I feel comfortable, self-confident and composed... Like a second skin...I feel that I don't have to be aware of how I look. I don't have to be self-conscious because I know I look good." (#2020)

Magic.While many consumers value this product for the social rewards it offers, for some the attachment seems to go beyond the realm of rational product benefits. Both socially and functionally, some consumers seem to value the "magical" qualities of the jeans. One respondent in the survey noted that she felt like she "...could do anything in them" (#2022), while another (perhaps influenced by the James Dean mythos) attributed life-like qualities to the pants: "They are confident because they walk like they are confident" (#1015).

The jeans also seem to be valued for their (literally) life-saving properties. A survey participant, when asked about any important experiences he had had when wearing the product, replied:

One time I had a horse and I jumped off and got caught in some wire and if I hadn't been wearing Levi's I would have been ripped to pieces. (#1024)

Examination of unsolicited letters which have been written to the company over the years revealed similar stories. There are numerous testimonials to the product's strength, which has reportedly saved people from a variety of serious injuries resulting from accidents in traffic, on construction sites, and even one account of a consumer wearing the jeans for months in a prisoner-of-war camp with no appreciable damage. The following account is representative of this experience:

I was working on a 52 story bank building...and a crane hook caught me in underneath my pocket and the crane swung me out in open air which [sic] I thought I was gone but the hook had me caught so that the Levi's didn't rip until another man brought me back to the side...I wanted to tell you in plains [sic] words that I'll buy when I can your Levi's...Levi's save [sic] my life so I pass it around they are getting their money's worth when they buy Levi's..."

M.H.

Fort Worth, TX

February 1, 1965

Personalization

Interviews with wearers emphasize the role adaptability of the product; they can be worn in a wide variety of situations, with a wide range of other clothing styles, and by a cross-section of subcultures. In this regard, the jeans may be seen as highly individuating. They do not force the wearer to conform to a specific life-style statement, but rather may be molded to the whims of the wearer. Compared to other, more role-specific clothing, they can accompany the wearer in a broader range of role performances. One survey respondent noted, "They feel like part of me -- I'm bare without them" (#1004). Consumers, in a sense, do not have to put on airs when wearing the jeans; the jeans form a sartorial blueprint of the individual instead. As another purchaser noted, "I feel like I can relax. I don't have to be stiff and proper" (#3050).

Mnemonic value. This individuation appears to prompt some 501's owners to regard the jeans as companions, and to value them because they accompanied the wearer during cherished or stressful life experiences. In one study of people's reasons for cherishing objects, 15% of the subjects interviewed reported that such objects embodied past memories (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981). Objects which are retained for long periods of time thus provide a record for the continuity of the self. The value of such products may lie in their ability to modulate arousal during times of social stress. In other contexts, it has been argued that an overstimulated organism values familiar objects (cf. Mehrabian 1976). In the Levi's survey, one respondent observed that "...they be [sic] a good friend...always with me, know me pretty much, like your best friend" (#2076).

Approximately 25% of respondents in the phone survey did in fact associate special memories with their 501 jeans. The majority of these memories were related to romantic encounters. The following are some representative examples of the memories elicited:

*"The first time I went out with the guy I'm still with" (#1010)

*"I went to a bar, met my spouse, we got married..." (#2079)

*"I asked my wife to marry me in 501 jeans" (#2069)

*"...first time I got laid" (#2075)

*"I got married in them" (#1033)

*"I wore them on my wedding night" (#1020)

Continuity

It seems clear that a significant component of the Levi's phenomenon is the longevity of the product. This attribute poses a bit of a quandary for the company, in that it is somewhat problematic to simultaneously promote staying power and to remind consumers about the desirability of repeat purchase. Unlike most fashion items which (by definition) lose their appeal when they lose their novelty, 501's go through a seasoning process whereby their meaning and value increases with the passage of time. This value seems to endure even after the product has deteriorated; its "essence" is often retained in the form of cut-offs, scraps in a quilt, and so on. Like a trusted horse or sword, the jeans seem to prove themselves on the social battlefield. In the telephone survey of Levi's owners, for example, 35% of respondents said that their oldest pair of 501's were more than two years old, 13% said that they were more than 4 years old, and 4% owned the same pair for more than six years.

The tendency to hold on to the pants is also supported by an examination of letters written to the company. Some excerpts from this (admittedly biased) sample should suffice to make the point:

*"Would you believe a 21-year-old pair of Levis?" (A.M., Cos Cob, CT, 9/18/74)

*"I graduated from high school in May of 1955, and at that time received two pair of Levi jeans. My purpose in writing to you is to inform you that I am still wearing one pair of those jeans..." (R.H.H., Phoenix, Az, 2/25/81)

*"I just wanted you to know after laundering your Levi's for 43 years my husband's Levi jeans still pair up with him for fishing trips, and hang lovingly in the garage --although a little fishy smelling." (G.S., Aptos, Ca, 2/11/81)

*"In October of 1939, my new husband bought a pair of your Levi jeans. He died this last February. After all these years, those jeans are still in very good condition." (R.A.B., Toledo, Oh, 8/15/83)

*"On my first trip to California, while learning engineering on the old ship Madison in the winter of 1913,...I bought two pair... of a very heavy blue jeans called Levi's....In spite of all the hard wear, grease and our practice of washing them in lye and steam from the ship's boilers, mine are still good right in 1960. I am sending one pair to you that you may see for yourself. The other will take care of me." (T.R.E., Ophelia, Va, 5/15/60)

Ceremonial rites. Although the examples above are certainly extraordinary, they do hint at the product's staying power. Consumers do more than just hold onto the pants, however. There seem to be at least three distinct ceremonial rites associated with 501's. First, there is the "breaking-in" process, where the consumer repeatedly washes the jeans until they soften and conform to his or her body. This rite resembles those practiced in some other cultures where the self and an object undergo a literal incorporation, such as the practice of licking new possessions or shedding one's blood on them (cf. Beaglehole 1932). It is interesting to note that consumers' desire for aged jeans has spawned an ancillary industry; some companies now sell pre-faded jeans and others sell a detergent additive to "break-in" new jeans.

Second, the jeans seem to take on the status of an heirloom for many consumers. That is, there is a tendency to "hand down" the jeans to one's children. The worn jeans, imbued with memories and experience, seem to provide a link between generations-- a comforting sense of continuity not provided by many contemporary products designed for everyday rather than ornamental use. The following letter exemplifies this function:

When I was 14 years old, my brother-in-law gave me an old pair of his jeans....The next summer I was in a serious automobile accident and my mom almost threw away my "favorites," thinking they would bring back bad memories. I remember being quite upset about it, and I wasn't happy 'til they were saved and I had them on again.

...Many years went by...and then I married a man with four children...His 12-year-old son wanted to swim in the river...and he needed some shorts. I got out the old reliables and they fit --...I lost them permanently to him...

The long and the short of it is, those old jeans are Levi's. As nearly as I can determine, they are at least 20 years old...

I watch my boy, and realize that he is the third generation enjoying those Levi's, and I thought you might like to know what fans we are of your product!... (L.W., Chehalis, Wa 7/1/83)

The third phase is burial. According to the company, there have been a number of instances where a pair of tattered 501's arrive in the mail with a note attached requesting a proper burial. These occurrences illustrate the anthropomorphic attachment generated by a simple product which costs less than $25, yet which occupies a privileged position in the American psyche.

CONCLUSIONS

The preceding discussion is an attempt to highlight by way of example the richness of relationships that consumers form to significant others, even if those "others" are inanimate objects. Some products are deeply engrained in the cultural psyche, and have meaning far beyond that unearthed by concept tests, conjoint analyses' and so on. To better understand such complex relationships, it is necessary to be open to nontraditional forms of inquiry and explanation.

The case study method is one way to approach this issue. It, too, has its problems. It is difficult to rule out alternative explanations, and the researcher must be sensitive to the bias inherent in selecting consumer protocols, etc. Also, this technique treats as legitimate information supplied by the symbol's creator (in this case, the company) or other interested parties -such sources must always be viewed with some skepticism. This bias highlights the desirability of collecting data from a number of different sources.

Regardless of the problems with this approach, consumer researchers must come to appreciate the special stature of products which are cultural icons. Their effects on consumers can be significant. Levi's 501's are one example of a basic and inexpensive product which is nonetheless the object of considerable attachment by many consumers.

By virtue of its physical properties and the mythology which has come to surround it, the product is used by consumers to perform many social functions, some of which almost resemble those normally performed by other people. The intensity and nature of the bonds formed between consumers and product icons is certainly worthy of further exploration, as a final letter to Levi's indicates:

I...just wanted you to know how my family feels about Levi Strauss. My husband has worn absolutely nothing but Levi's jeans for 35 years.

All he ever asks for, for Christmas and Father's Day....are Levi's. This year I thought I would surprise him and take some of his old and too small Levi's and put them into a quilt, so not only can he wear them all day, but he can sleep with them at night. I guess he would say, "Next to Levi's, I love my wife the best." (K.K., Cincinnati, Oh, 6/21/82)

REFERENCES

Beaglehole, Ernest (1932), Property: A Study in Social Psychology, New York: Macmillan.

Belk, Russell W. (1984a), "Manifesto for a Consumer Behavior of Consumer Behavior,"in eds. Michael J. Ryan and Paul F. Anderson,Scientific Method in Marketing: Philosophy, Sociology, and History of Science Perspectives, Chicago: American Marketing Association.

Belk, Russell W. (1984b), "Possessions and the Sense of Self," unpublished manuscript, The University of Utah.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly and Eugene Rochberg-Halton (1981), The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Fairbairn, W.R. (1954), An Object-Relations Theory of Personality, New York: Basic Books.

Furby, Lita (1978), "Possessions: Toward a Theory of Their Meaning and Function Throughout the Life-Cycle," in ed. P. B. Baltes, Life-Span Development and Behavior, Vol. 1, New York: Academic Press, 297-336.

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Weisberg, Paul and James E. Russell (1971), Proximity and Interactional Behavior of Young Children to Their 'Security' Blankets," Child Development, 42, 1575-1579.

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