Every wardrobe needs a great pair of vintage Levi jeans. What better choice than a classic pair of vintage Levi 501 button-fly jeans? Or maybe you want a vintage boot cut, zip fly 517. Whether you are shopping on the web, in a vintage clothing store, thrift store or yard sale, it is important to know if you paying for real vintage or finding the jeans of a lifetime. Dating Levis does not have to be complicated and if you have ever wondered how old a pair of Levis are --then this brief guide will give you the basics to identifying and dating vintage Levi jeans.
1980s – 1971 Last of the redlines
This is the last era of what is considered true vintage Levis. Generally jeans from this era are called redlines IF AND ONLY IF they possess redline selvage inside the leg seam. This can be seen when the cuff is folded up and looks like the photo on the right. The white strip will have a red thread running through is (although sometimes this has turned pinkish or faded). Only the jeans with this nice seam-work command decent dollars from this era. This issue will also have a red pocket tab with a lowercase 'e' in Levi. Generally expect them to be button fly 501s.
1971 – 1969 Small 'e' hybrids
This era of Levi jeans marked the transition from the famous Big E Levi's (discussed below), to the lower case 'e' red back pocket tab. The only distinguishing characteristics between this era and the post 1971 era are: the top fly button (either zipper or button fly models) will have a single digit number stamped on back and the interior top of the back pocket will be single stitched instead of the later ropey chain stitching. Please refer to the pictures below.
1971 – 1966 Classic Big E
The most sought after vintage Levi's fall in this era and before. True classic deep indigo and rings spun denim. The red back pocket tab will have upper case 'E' in LEVI. The red tab also has 'Levi's' written on both sides as well. The top fly button will also have a single digit stamped on back and the back pockets will also be single stitched as well.
1966 – late 1930s Big E with Hidden Rivets XX
Very sought after. This era has all of the features above, plus on the interior there are 'hidden' rivets where the back pockets join the body of the pants. Before this time, the rivets penetrated to the exterior of the pocket (similar to modern day Wranglers), but complaints about them marring furniture caused the Levi-Strauss Company to "hide" them from sight and relocate them to the interior. This model is referred to as Big E Double X. The rivets became hidden and the iconic red tab first appeared in the late 1930s.
1935 and before Buckleback and more
Becoming increasingly rare, these Levi's have the obvious characteristic of a buckle back on the rear waist to cinch the fit. As the years roll back there are many distinguishing characteristics that will help date the earliest Levi's. The last decade has seen pairs of jeans recovered from old mine shafts dating to the late 1800s.
While recent years has brought a revival of 'vintage' style Levi's made to near exact specifications, it is easy to spot the differences once you become familiar with the 'real deal'. Within each category above the are many, many other subtle things to look for involving the watch pocket, stitching, belt loops, etc. Modern Big E jeans generally have double stitching on the interior back pockets, do NOT have a single digit on the fly button and will normally have imagery or stampings on the interior white fabric of the front pockets as well as improper waist leather patches. Do not let yourself be fooled! Some of these same features help identify vintage Levi jackets as well. Whether you are shopping for vintage hawaiian shirts, vintage Nike sportswear or for finding and wearing vintage denim, the goal is to arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible. Make smarter buying decisions!