Is there anything more becoming to a posterior than a well cut pair of jeans? Ms. LYNN DOWNEY, the archivist and historian for LEVI’S, believes that there is not. In her 24 years in the role, she has undertaken the heroic task of cataloguing the brand’s denim incarnations from the earliest ‘XX’ style (not to be confused with the pop group of the same name) through to the 501 worn by cowboys, crooners and Hollywood rebels.
FANTASTIC MAN: What’s the proudest piece in the LEVI’S collection?
LYNN DOWNEY: Well that would be the oldest item, which dates to about 1879 and is literally the world’s oldest pair of jeans. It’s when the 501 was just called XX.
How does one go about storing a pair of valuable jeans like that?
It’s very high security in the archives. They are in San Francisco, and we have two fireproof safes. We use fabric like unbleached muslin, a neutral storage medium, and we have a lot of other pieces that are in acid-free boxes. We also open the fireproof vaults every day so mould doesn’t grow. They’ll last forever if we keep them that way.
Jeans have a reputation as the most hardwearing garment.
People didn’t worry about taking care of their trousers in the old days. Some of these working men would never wash their jeans. We bought a 1950s pair of from a man who said they were his fishing jeans. They came to us, and he’d never washed them.
Surely they stunk?
Oh, they were awful! He had cleaned his fish gutting knife on them. So my co-worker literally took them home, threw them on her driveway and turned a hose on them. We have another pair that came out of a ghost town in Nevada. They were in a ball of mud, and we had to soak them and soak them in water. Water won’t hurt the denim, but you have to get the dirt out.
Is water the best way to wash jeans, rather than detergent?
Well, I wash mine in cold water and hang them outside on my clothes line. That’s what they did in the past, and that’s good enough for me. I wouldn’t want to put all those chemicals in them myself.
Do you have a dedicated network of people on the lookout for denim treasures?
I’ve been an archivist for LEVI’S for 24 years, and I’ve been buying all that time, but there’s only so much out there and the supply has kind of run out. I have one guy in Southern California who sells pieces to me. About every 18 months I get an extraordinary old pair that came out of a mining town or a garbage dump.
What makes a pair of jeans ‘extraordinary’?
There’s nothing sexier than a good arse in a pair of jeans, is there?
Yeah! I totally agree.
The subversive connotation of jeans has disappeared now though, hasn’t it?
I don’t know. I think there’s still some pockets where jeans are seen as a little bit ‘out there’. You know, when OBAMA wore jeans people remarked upon it – all those Ivy League types. But why shouldn’t the president wear jeans?
Do you think there’s anyone that shouldn’t wear jeans?
Oh heck no. Everyone should wear jeans.