Nothing defines Texans like their blue jeans. Forget the boots, the hat, the Brushpopper shirt, the horse and saddle—denim is the fabric of our lives and one of the last authentic connections to our past. Jeans are about the pioneer settlers, the cattle barons, the wildcatters, the dealmakers, the rockers, and the rednecks—throughout our hallowed history they have never gone out of style. In 1977 a legislator even went so far as to try to have jeans declared the “official state costume.” (An idea that was rightly ignored.) Over the past three decades, everyone else has caught on to what we have always known; 600 million pairs were sold in 1992, making jeans the best-selling pant in the world. Although there are hundreds of labels to choose from, in this state two brands rule. Are you a Levi’s or a Wranglers man (or woman)? How you answer says as much about you as the neighborhood you live in or the kind of pickup you drive.
Shades of Blue
Like most Texas boys my age, i was raised on blue jeans. Back in the sixties, the only sartorial decision a male high school student in Fort Worth faced was whether to wear Levi’s, Lees, or Wranglers. Slacks were for dandies, guys in the slide-rule club, and kids whose parents wouldn’t let them wear jeans. But already the winds of change were kicking up dust devils around our boot heels. The early sixties were marked by a wave of innovations. First came cords, plain jeans with a zipper fly but hewn of corduroy; then white twill Levi’s, which were considered very cool because the Beach Boys wore them. Next were the preshrunk jeans that eliminated the ritual of breaking in a pair to fit the shape of your legs and trunk. Before the diplomas were handed out, we had been bombarded with all kinds of variations on the theme: wheat-colored jeans, boot-cut jeans (positively thrilling the kickers in my crowd), and bell-bottoms, which, I am embarrassed to say, found their way into my closet.
Though we take them for granted now, blue jeans weren’t widely accepted until the late seventies. More than anything else, the 1980 movie Urban Cowboy, starring John Travolta as a disco darling turned chip kicker, brought jeans into the maintstream. Even my friends and family back East began wearing them, and so did the Europeans and the Japanese, who coveted jeans as pieces of Americana that ranked right up there with Mickey Mouse and McDonald’s. And in Communist Russia a mint pair of Levi’s 501’s became the most sought-after article of clothing on the black market.
In 1980 the fashion gurus of New York’s Seventh Avenue emporiums ushered in the era of the designer jean. Baggy jeans were out; form-fitting jeans were in. The new styles were meant, in particular, to flatter a woman’s body. Remember the ads with teenage actress Brooke Shields, wearing just her jeans and purring defiantly, “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins?” Almost overnight, Calvin Klein, Jordache, and Gloria Vanderbilt, among others, became the arbiters of a new casually hip, kicked-back style.
“For the longest time, Levi and Wrangler were talking about a guy with his fingers stuck in his pockets,” Norman Karr, the executive director of Jeanswear Communications in New York, said. “Then designer jeans started selling a girl with her butt sticking out. These jeans forced everyone in the business to think beyond the bounds of basics.” The Big Two responded with form-fitting styles of their own—adding more-flattering lines for women, new models for men with large thighs and seats, and styles for both sexes that took into account the expanding waistlines of aging baby boomers. In the mid-eighties stonewashed and faded denim arrived, jeans aimed at people who had no time to let their jeans fade gracefully. More gratuitous innovations followed: zippers up and down the pant legs that served absolutely no purpose, fashionable patches in strategic places, and machine-ripped jeans. Country singer Dwight Yoakam wears ripped jeans, which is a look that I seriously doubt came from working with barbed wire.
Colors have become an essential part of the sell—as in Wrangler’s Night Green (for Christmas holiday wear) and Pink Diamond from the women’s Prairie Dancer collection. Even bell-bottoms are hot again. But in the past five years, the trend has come full circle. In spite of all the fine-tuning, the basic blue jean has not only survived, it is still the best-selling style around the world.
I find this fuss over a well-worn pair of jeans heartening. I am a basic jeans guy. Unwashed shrink-to-fit jeans may take a little longer to look lived-in, but I’d rather do my own fading than have a machine do it for me. My brand of choice has always been Levi’s 501’s. I love the way they hang on my hips and fit snugly at the crotch. The button fly seems to me more elegant than a zipper. I especially appreciate my 501’s after I’ve broken them in. As the denim fades it softens and feels as sensuous as cashmere. While 501’s may seem practically generic to millions of Texans like me, I’ve discovered that Wranglers may be even more Texan—in particular, the 13MWZ Pro Rodeo Cowboy Cut, a jean so closely tied to the values and heritage of the Lone Star State that I have pondered switching brands.
History does not document the first pair of jeans to be worn in Texas. They were most likely waist overalls sold by Levi Strauss, a Bavarian immigrant merchant who, in 1853, fashioned work pants from heavyweight brown canvas and sold them to miners working the lodes of Northern California during the Gold Rush. When Strauss exhausted his canvas stock, he ordered a heavy, more versatile fabric called denim from a textile company in New Hampshire. He refined his jeans design, adding features like a back pocket with the stitched-on Arcuate Design (the one that looks like the silhouette of a bird in flight), which is the oldest trademark still in use in the apparel industry. In 1873 Strauss added the now famous copper rivets that hold the pants together because miners complained that the weight of gold nuggets caused the pants pockets to rip. In Texas and all over the West, cowboys discovered that these waist overalls, which later came to be known as jeans, served as rugged work pants. Other small changes have been made to the 501 over the years. Most notably, the removal in 1936 of a copper rivet at the bottom of the 501’s button fly—a change that cowboys had requested, but one that was not implemented until Levi president Walter Haas got a little too close to a campfire one night. By the forties, Texas had become such a huge market for Levi that the company opened a men’s jeans plant in Wichita Falls.
Wrangler was a relative latecomer to Texas. In 1946, Blue Bell Bib Overalls, the company that started Wrangler, enlisted Rodeo Ben, a Hollywood Western-wear tailor, to design a pair of denim pants specifically for cowboys. Cowboys didn’t much care for the bib overalls Blue Bell made; they wanted a more user-friendly alternative to 501’s. Rodeo Ben collaborated with four professional rodeo cowboys, including Freckles Brown and Jim Shoulders, to design a pant that came to be known as the 13MWZ, or the thirteenth prototype men’s Western jean with zipper. The new pant was so well received that the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association endorsed the product in 1947 (an arrangement that continues today). By 1969, the 13MWZ had become so popular in Texas that Wrangler opened a plant in El Paso.
I learned this history in El Paso, the blue jeans capital of the universe, where more than two million pairs of jeans roll off assembly lines every week. Levi Strauss, which opened its first El Paso plant in 1966, is the dominant jeans manufacturer in the city. The San Francisco-based company ranks as El Paso’s third-largest employer, with a work force of more than 4,000 people. The company employs another 6,000 workers in McAllen, Brownsville, San Benito, Harlingen, Amarillo, San Angelo, Wichita Falls, and San Antonio—almost half of its 22,000 U.S. personnel. “We consider San Francisco our bank where we put the money,” Mike Ramos, the human resources manager at plant 544 in McAllen said. “The guts and feathers are in Texas.”
El Paso is also the flagship of Wrangler’s Western-wear division, which includes the discount Rustler line and the American Hero, Timber Creek, and Rugged Wear lines. Wrangler is a division of the VF Corporation, the $4.5 billion apparel giant that also owns Lee and smaller brands, such as Girbaud USA, for a hefty 30 percent share of the jeanswear market. The Wrangler Western-wear division, which operates independently of other VF companies, employs 2,100 workers in El Paso at three plants and a distribution center. A new $18 million, 320,000-square-foot finishing and distribution center is set to open in October.
Made To Be Broken In
In El Paso, jeans are manufactured in large, noisy factories that employ mostly Hispanics. Making a pair is an intricate process that usually takes three or four days. Denim from rolls weighing five hundred to seven hundred pounds (the denim alone accounts for 60 percent of the manufacturing cost of jeans) is spread flat on 165-foot-long tables and cut by hand or by automated Gerber cutters—huge $250,000 machines that cut various pieces out of sixty-ply denim from computer-drawn blueprints. After human cutters round off the rough edges (Levi recycles the excess denim into parchment paper and company business cards), the parts are moved to a sewing facility. Sewing is the most labor-intensive part of the process; there are 19,000 seamsters in El Paso. The cut pieces are joined, and pockets, stitching, rivets, buttons, belt loops, zippers, and labels are attached. The jeans are then sorted, inspected, and bundled for shipping. Most of them are taken to finishing centers.
Every jeans manufacturer has a laundry-finishing center or contracts with one, and El Paso is the laundry capital of the world—a somewhat dubious distinction for a desert city with a diminishing water supply. Finishing ages denim by loosening the indigo dye and exposing the white cotton beneath it. Initially, the most popular method of finishing was stonewashing. At Levi’s Pellicano finishing center in east El Paso, small rocks litter the floor around 28 monster washing machines and 15 dryers, where men in rubber boots constantly sweep blue dye and lint into a drainage trough. The rocks are pumice stones from Turkey—the perfect size, shape, and abrasiveness to give Levi’s a worn-in look. One hundred pounds of jeans are washed together with two hundred pounds of pumice stones and chemical enzymes in the washers; once the rocks are removed, the jeans are washed again to clean up the fabric. Other finishing methods including sandblasting, overdying, and shaking and baking with powdered chlorine, which breaks down the protective layer of the fiber—a method that avoids the abrasiveness of the stones. (All these methods pale in comparison with the small designer label in Tennessee that ages its jeans by peppering them with shotgun pellets.)
Tug of Wear
Levi and Wrangler could, of course, save money if they moved the labor-intensive tasks to Mexico, where wages are one-eighth what they are in the United States. But, management at both companies scoffs at the suggestion. “Our philosophy is that our people have the experience and mentality to be competitive with anybody,” Mike Ramos of Levi said. “We let other people worry about losing their jobs to another country. We’re concentrating on improving our jobs here at home.” Besides, the Made in U.S.A. label is an essential part of the appeal here and abroad. For Levi Strauss, foreign sales of men’s jeans generated almost $1 billion last year. Levi’s international image as the genuine pants of the American West is unchallenged. In fact, despite the presence of Levi plants in the Orient, consumers in Japan would rather pay $75 for a pair of 501’s with the Made in U.S.A. label.
Levi’s may look Western, but Wranglers are more than a look. They’re tailored specifically for the cowboy who wears boots, sits in a saddle, works outdoors, and plays in his work clothes. While it would be nice to have Levi’s international success, Wrangler’s domestic sales are healthy enough to keep the shareholders happy. Especially in Texas, which is Wrangler’s number one state in retail sales—a reflection, no doubt, of the company’s careful cultivation of the Western-wear retail market. Levi’s may be more common in department stores, but at Sheplers, Cavender’s, Luskey’s, and other Western-wear stores, Wranglers have the featured display space. “Cowboys are a Texas tradition,” reasoned Wrangler’s El Paso sales rep Carl Townsend. “And Wrangler is the cowboy’s jeans.”
Though Levi’s are worn around the world and Wrangler’s appeal is centered in the western United States, both companies share the goal of expanding sales southward. In their eyes, Mexico is a market of 90 million jeans aficionados waiting to be clothed. Levi is already accommodating some of those customers with a network of authorized retailers in Mexico City, Guadalajara, Monterrey, and other major cities. Wrangler dominates the South Texas Western-wear retail market, where its 936 Slim Fit, for slighter builds, has found favor among Hispanics. But rather than go up against Levi compañía a compañía in the urban areas of Mexico, Wrangler’s expansion strategy will concentrate on the states of Coahuila, Jalisco, Chihuahua, and Sonora, which have a strong ranching heritage. And mimicking its successful endorsements in the U.S., Wrangler has enlisted the National Association of Charros to endorse 13MWZ’s.
That deliberate approach underscores the Wrangler philosophy about 13MWZ’s. When you have a successful formula, why monkey with it? The last major refinement was made in 1962. “We changed the wording on the inside fly label in 1985 and suddenly got lots of returns from stores that claimed the jeans didn’t fit the same anymore,” Joe Maxey, head of Wrangler’s El Paso division, said.
In the eighties Levi tried to horn in on the 13MWZ’s popularity with the 550 relaxed fit, but it has never really captured the fancy of the working buckaroo. “They got a couple of pro rodeo cowboys to endorse them, but they didn’t get the business,” Carl Townsend said. Townsend likes to tell the tale of one of the competition’s endorsees who walked into the El Paso County Coliseum, put on his sponsor’s jeans, went out and rode his bronco, and then donned a pair of Wranglers once he was out of the spotlight.
Which is not to say that Wrangler would mind horning in on some of Levi’s customers itself. These days the Wrangler line includes not only the Slim Fit 936 model but also the relaxed fit 22MWZ. The company introduces thirteen colors each season to its women’s and girls’ lines too.
Both Levi and Wrangler walk the line between serving traditionalists like me and more trend-conscious consumers. “Levi had the attitude that ‘We make 501’s and they’re in blue,’” explained Pilar Charo, the assistant manager of Levi plant 511 in east El Paso. But designer jeans taught the company a thing or two about being responsive. “We make and sell what the customer wants, not what Levi wants,” Charo said. He pointed out that 501’s today come in 224 sizes and 26 finished fabrics. “Look at GM in Japan, trying to sell steering wheels on the left-hand side when all the drivers preferred them on the right. Just because they’re GM isn’t enough. They weren’t meeting the market demand. Levi has to be adaptable.”
Last year Texans bought 32.6 million pairs of jeans, or one out of every twenty pairs sold in the world. Since we are the world’s most discriminating jeans connoisseurs, we need to keep in mind exactly what our jeans say about us. After touring several plants and seeing how jeans are made, I feel more attached than ever to my rigids. But which ones? I used to think 501’s were the only way to go, but now I know if I want to dress authentically Western, I should be wearing the 13MWZ Cowboy Cut. I already have an old seventies vintage pair of brown, rivetless Wranglers that I picked up at a general store in Moulton a few years back. They’re appropriately tight in the areas I like them tight, though the cuff is too narrow to accommodate boots of any kind. But I’ve liked them enough to go out and buy a pair of 13MWZ’s. If rodeo champ Ty Murray wears them, maybe I’ll like wearing them too. And you know what? They really are comfortable. They’re certainly the best jeans I’ve ever worn over a pair of boots. I’ll admit that I’m having a little trouble adjusting to the high waist. But whenever I start feeling like Jerry Lewis, with my pants hitched above my navel, I just look in the mirror and recall that bumper sticker I’ve seen pasted on cowgirls’ pickups: “Wrangler Butts Drive Me Nuts.” Pretty soon, I’m going to have to learn how to ride a horse.
But does authentically Western mean authentically Texan? The way I see it, 501’s represent the West of the imagination. They recall our heritage in the way novels and movies do now. They conjure images of Gus McCrae, James Dean, and Clint Eastwood. But some of us can still be real cowboys. In another life (like when I am a six-foot, six-inch strapping son of a gun and mend fences for a living) I would be a Wranglers man, desirable butt and all. From time to time, I’ll wear my 13MWZ’s proudly, and I’ll wear them with a clear conscience. But I know what I like and I like what I know, even if I am an ersatz cowboy, not a real one. Give up my 501’s? When you peel ‘em off my cold, dead body. And you better leave a pair behind. Because I’m going to be buried in my jeans. That’s how I want to dress for eternity.
Stand By Your Brand
Who Wears What and Why
“I’ve been wearing Wranglers since I was a boy because they fit me just right and they’re the best damn blue jeans in the world.”
Creator of Beavis and Butt-head, Dallas
“I like Levi’s because they shrink to fit . . . huh-huh huh-huh.”
High School Cheerleader, Jasper
“My red Wranglers are my favorite. I wear Wranglers when I ride my horse, Trigger, in the pasture.”
Maintenance Man, Houston
“I don’t wear underwear and they feel better.”
World Champion Calf Roper, Cypress
“I used to wear Levi’s in high school, but it’s just not the thing to wear. Besides, they don’t sponsor rodeos.”
“I wear them because they’re tough. I take off the rear pockets because I can get caught on the formations in the cave.”
Guard, Dallas Cowboys, Dallas
“Extra extra extra extra extra large, big-butted jeans.”
Singing Idol, San Antonio
“When I’m flying by the seat of my pants, I feel really safe in Wrangler jeans. Besides, a lot of female tejano fans think that the right pair of jeans is the bottom line, if you know what I mean.”
Manager, Keller’s Drive-In, Dallas
“I wore Levi’s when I was a carhop, and now I’m a manager and I’m still wearing them. My whole family wears Levi’s. I hate Lees.”
Texas Agriculture Commissioner, Haskell
“Next to my wife, there’s nothing that feels better than the feeling of Texas cotton in my Wranglers.”
Horse Trainer, Cattle Rancher, Mother of Four, Graham
“I wear Rocky Mountains because I like the fit, and I think they’re more flattering to ladies. Plus, I ride horses, and they’re more comfortable for riding.”
Center, Houston Rockets, Houston
“I don’t like blue jeans, I wear white jeans. I went to the department store, but they didn’t have any sized 36-49. So LA Gear made me about twenty pairs of pants and made me about twenty pairs of white jeans shorts. Most people are afraid of white. But you just throw them in the washing machine, push ‘bleach,’ and they’re white again.”
Ostrich and Emu Rancher, Travis County
“Sometimes I wrestle birds that weigh four hundred pounds. You don’t want to wear something flimsy if you’ve got to take down an ostrich.”
WBAP Midnight Disk Jockey, Fort Worth
“They set a mood. They look like Texas.”
Dallas Morning News Columnist, Dallas
“I have a problem. I am compulsive about which jeans I wear from day to day depending on whether or not I wear boots or tennis shoes. For cowboy boots I wear a 33-34 inseam, and for tennis shoes I wear a 31-32 inseam, and keeping track of them drives me nuts.”
“I wear any that will fit.”
Fifth Grader, Friona
“I wear Bugle Boy and Levi’s, but I like Wranglers best because they don’t let those sticker burrs stick you.”
“They fit the best for when I need to kick butt.”
Rancher, Runnells-Pierce Ranch, Matagorda County
“I like the 501 button fly. Wranglers just aren’t made for me. If I had the physique of a bean pole, they’d fit me, but I don’t. I’m kind of stocky.”
Speaker, Texas House of Representatives, Hale Center
“I was born and raised in blue jeans. Until I went to college, I didn’t know there was anything else—except for a Sunday suit.”
San Antonio’s Express-News Columnist, San Antonio
“I’ll wear anything I can get this ass in. In France I wear designer jeans, because I know it’s not okay to wear blue jeans, but it is okay if they’re designer.”
Author, The Cowgirl Companion, Houston
“My favorite is an old pair of hand-me-down 501’s. They’re great because they look good when I’m skinny and still fit when I’m fat.”
1993 Jean Trivia
In the printed version of True Fit, the following trivia were captions to graphics throughout the article.
Wrangle’s snug-fitting 14MZW’s are the best-selling women’s jeans along the Texas-Mexico border because they look painted one.
Texans bought 32.7 million pairs of jeans in 1992, or 2 pairs for every man, woman, and child. Wrangler sold almost 16 million pairs of jeans here last year. We buy more Wranglers than any other state in the union.
In 1960 Levi’s decided to change the name of its denim pants from overalls to jeans.
Women’s 501’s, made exclusively in McAllen, do not have waist and length sizes printed on the outside leather label. For the sake of privacy, they are on an inside label.
In the “e” in the word “Levi’s” on the red tag on the back pocket of your jeans is capitalized, they are antiques. Vintage clothiers will pay upwards of $150 for them.
Before Rodeo Ben designed the 13MWZ, all ladies’ jeans had side zippers. He is credited with developing the first women’s jeans with a front opening.
The “Levi’s 501 Blues” campaign launched during the 1984 Summer Olympics cost $32 million, making it the largest single-product ad campaign in apparel history.
Recycled jeans are a hot commodity. Trailers parked at intersections in may Texas cities pay up to $13 for used 501’s, which are resold overseas for as much as $150. According to Michele Morris book Cowboy Life, a store in New York call Montana Broke sells Wranglers worn by real Montana cowboys. The jeans come with a certificate of authenticity that details the cause of each rip, tear,and faded area. In Japan, replicas of vintage 501’s sell for $133.
The biggest jeans in the world are worn by Big Tex, the official greeter at the State Fair of Texas. His size: 276W-192L. Tex was a Lee Riders man when de debuted in 1952, but he switched to Levi’s in 1989 when that company offered sponsorship money. It is uncertain whether he wears 501’s or 505’s, since his fly is permanently shut.
Levi’s button-fly jeans once had a mystique similar to Coors beer, since they weren’t widely marketed east of the Mississippi. Your average Yankee had to make do with 505’s, which are 501’s with a zipper fly instead of a button fly.
Nineteen fifty-four was a very good year for blue jeans. Levi’s Lighter Blues, the first pre-faded jeans, were introduced; James Dean, in East of Eden, and Marlon Brando, in The Wild Ones, wore jeans; and Bing Crosby was denied access to a restaurant for wearing a pair of blue jeans.
El Paso has some two hundred jeans manufacturers. Including Lee, which dominates the women’s jeans market these days. Other brands made in El Paso: Calvin Klein, Gap, Opal, Pepe, Rocky Mountain, Roper, Traffic, Banana Republic, Guess?, JouJou, Jordache, Action West is El Paso’s largest locally owned jeans company; it makes Sierra West and Cyclone and private-label jeans for the Limited, K mart, and J.C. Penney.
Dickies—Teenagers who wear these Fort Worth-made work clothes define their looks as “haute couture handyman.”
How to break in your jeans correctly
How to break in a new pair of 501’s
1. Fill up the tub with warm water.
2. Put on jeans and jump in.
3. Sit awhile and let jeans mold themselves to your shape. (Watch out! The pants will bleed and turn the water and anything that gets wet a deep indigo blue.)
4. Get out of the tub and walk around.
5. Hang jeans up to dry.
6. Wear at your leisure. Jeans will feel new for several washings, until white fibrous hairs disappear. If you feel
self-conscious, repeat process.
How to break in a new pair of 13MWZ’s
1. Buy them long enough—at least two inches longer than normal length. For stacked look, keep in mind that jeans should bunch from the boot to just below the knee.
2. Turn them inside out before washing (keeps them bluer).
3. Wash once with cold water.
4. Take to professional cleaners and have them pressed. Request heavy starch.