Anyone alive in the 1960s and ’70s who wore blue jeans knew that the best pants around were Levi’s. They had the look, the feel, and the cachet that told everyone — whether wearer or onlooker — that your pants were fucking cool. Hell, John Lennon wore Levi’s. So did Andy Warhol and Harvey Milk. And when that era gave way to other eras, the jeans were still cool to wear, which is why Steve Jobs craved them — and why Levi Strauss & Co. was ecstatic to send the Apple CEO as many gratis pairs as he wanted.
If you didn’t already know these facts, you’d quickly learn them if you went to the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s new exhibit, “Levi Strauss: A History of American Style.” But wait, you might say: What does “Jewish” have to do with the clothing favored by both those in the counterculture and the culture at large? Well, everything and nothing. It’s unlikely that those who wore and still wear Levi’s products — whether jeans, shirts, shoes, or jackets — bought the brand because its founder was a 19th-century Jewish-American immigrant. They might not even know that fact. But to those who care about the origins of things, “Levi Strauss: A History of American Style” will be a knockout of an exhibit because it gets into the nitty-gritty of the San Francisco jeans company and its founder — and there’s a lot of nitty-gritty to go around.
For one thing, it’s something of a miracle that Levi Strauss even found his way to San Francisco from the German region of Bavaria. In the early 1800s, the German government imposed the Judenedikt (Jew law), which forbade Jews like Levi’s dad, a peddler, from passing on his profession to his sons. After Levi’s dad died, other anti-Semitic restrictions prompted Levi’s mom to take the family, including 17-year-old Levi, to New York in 1847, after which Levi made his way to San Francisco and set up Levi Strauss & Co. — but it was the year 1873 that accounts for Levi’s global legacy and accounts for the birth of blue jeans. That was the year a Reno tailor asked Levi Strauss & Co. to partner on work pants that featured rivets, which would make the pants stronger and more durable. Their patent led to the first Levi’s blue jeans, and a still-expanding history of product milestones and cultural associations that ensure the company’s pants and other items are popular.
This pop-culture connection is one of the exhibit’s highlights, so we see the actual Levi’s leather jacket that Albert Einstein wore in the 1930s, including for a cover photo in Time magazine. We see a mannequin with the same Harvey Milk t-shirt and jeans that the San Francisco supervisor wore in the 1970s. And we see the kind of Levi’s clothing that Dr. Dre and Ice Cube wore in the 1980s as they helped establish hiphop as a new generation’s preeminent music. It’s all a reminder of blue jeans’ appeal — not just the appeal of Levi’s, but the appeal of blue jeans in general.
Thousands of companies now make blue jeans, so Levi’s no longer has a monopoly on their place in the culture. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find people outside the United States who connect blue jeans just to Levi’s.
If there’s a big hole in the Levi Strauss exhibit, it’s in the lack of global perspective on the wearing (and making) of blue jeans. In the timeline that introduces the exhibit, we learn about East German youth who wore Levi’s and other jeans as they celebrated the Berlin Wall’s fall in 1989. But there’s not much else about contemporary, international links to Levi’s. Which is too bad since more people today wear blue jeans outside the United States than here. And more people work in factories abroad that produce Levi’s jeans than produce them here in the United States, as indicated by Levi’s own public listings of its factories. As it is, the exhibit celebrates the success of Levi Strauss & Co. as a U.S. immigrant’s dream story.
And in that story is Levi Strauss’ philanthropy. He was an active part of San Francisco’s Jewish community, and he gave big when he was alive — participating in the practice of tzedakah, which as the exhibit notes is “the Jewish duty to help those in need as a means of spreading justice in the world.” That’s a beautiful connection to make in an exhibit that highlights so much else.
What the exhibit conveys best is the utter joy that people — famous or not — have when they wear blue jeans that are stylish, comfortable, and make the wearer feel good. Levi Strauss perfected that feeling.
A Must-See Quilt Retrospective at BAMPFA
Who was Rosie Lee Tompkins, and why is she getting a major retrospective at BAMPFA 14 years after her death? Because Tompkins deserves much wider recognition outside the art and quilt circles where she is known. Tompkins’ quilts and other assemblages — first made when she was in middle age, after moving from the American South to the East Bay city of Richmond — are full of mosaic-like and collage-like patterns, but also full of mosaic-like and collage-like ideas. You don’t just see stitches of fabric in Tompkins’ artwork but stitches of thoughts about art, about politics, and about societal issues, as in the 1996 quilt that includes different U.S. flags, a panorama of three assassinated American leaders (John F. Kennedy; Martin Luther King, Jr; and Robert Kennedy), sideways and upside-down female dancers, and sports references.
Tompkins also put personal references and religious references into her art, which BAMPFA curators have decoded — and which make the quilts a series of revelations about someone who was loathe to reveal herself publicly. Tompkins was the pseudonym of Effie Mae Howard, and her quilts were part of a massive collection of African-American-made quilts that collector Eli Leon’s estate gave to BAMPFA. The exhibit is enriched by Tompkins’ range of work. And some quilts — like the untitled 1986 work with velvet, velveteen, and faux fur — are patterns of such alluring shapes and fabric that you want to take them off the wall and use them for what they could still be: As quilts you put in a room that is all your own.
“Levi Strauss: A History of American Style”
Through Aug. 9 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St. $14-$16, 415-655-7800, thecjm.org.
“Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective”
Through July 19 at BAMPFA, 2155 Center St., Berkeley. $12-$14, 510-642-0808, bampfa.org.