I had just turned 13 and was starting eighth grade when the great Levi’s invasion of the ’80s began. Sure, people had been wearing the brand’s jeans for decades, but 1983 marked a decided upturn in coolness. But the world of Levi’s was confusing for a novice like myself and the first clue that I had made a mistake came the week before school started.
A week before classes, the administration at my junior high would post the class lists on the front door. Students were expected to stop by to see which classroom they’d been assigned so they’d know where to report on the first day. Everyone rushed to see the lists. It wasn’t so much to know what classroom you’d been assigned, or even who your homeroom teacher was, but exactly who your classmates were set to be.
I went to see the lists with my best friend, Jana. We weren’t in the same class, which was disappointing. But I was with a girl called Dana, who happened to be checking the lists at the same time and said “Who the hell is Pamela Klaffke?” rather loudly, just as we were standing there. I said, “I am.” She looked me up-and-down and said, “Oh.”
We checked each other out. We were both wearing brightly coloured Ralph Lauren shirts with the Polo pony logo. We both carried Esprit drawstring shoulder bags (mine was neon lime and pink). We were both wore Converse high tops. And of course we each had on a pair of Levi’s. Hers, however, looked different from mine and fit better. Hers also had a red tab on one of the back pockets; mine was orange. I had made a terrible, terrible mistake.
My mother wasn’t keen to shell out for another brand new pair of jeans when she’d just spent so much on my carefully picked back-to-school wardrobe. I pleaded. I begged. She refused. I cut off the orange tag and started saving my babysitting money for a pair of red tab Levi’s — 501s.
I wore my tabless Levi’s. No one said a word about them, but I knew they weren’t as good as Dana’s red tabs. We became friends and soon I learned things like that her jeans were 501s and had a button fly, and that making fun of other girls could be fun. Dana was a mean girl and I was soon swept into her mean girl gang. I kept my male friends — that was all cool with Dana. But my oldest girlfriends, like Jana, had to go. There were lots of issues with the girls Dana deemed uncool and they didn’t even have any kind of Levi’s.
I was so excited when I wore my first pair of 501s to school. Dana asked me how weird it was to have to go to the local western-wear shop to buy them. I didn’t know what she was talking about. I bought mine at a department store in the local mall. She rolled her eyes. Again, I’d bought the wrong ones. They were indeed 501s, but they weren’t the shrink-to-fit 501s that you could only get at the western-wear store.
So I started saving again. I asked for a pair for Christmas. I even went with my Mom to the western-wear store to inspect these strange, giant jeans. My mother deemed them ridiculous and that was that. If I wanted them, I’d have to pay for them myself.
By the time I’d saved enough money, Dana and I had had a falling out and I was now on her blacklist, which meant daily mean girl trauma. I started to care less about the jeans and more about how I was going to make it through each school day without crying.
I never did buy that pair of shrink-to-fits, but started finding worn-in pairs of men’s 501s at thrift shops. I ditched the Ralph Lauren shirts and Esprit bags in favour of a funked-up layered look, like I’d seen pictures of people in London wearing and started taking fashion cues from my favourite UK bands. I loved my style and started sewing clothes for myself and my friends. The last thing I wanted was to look like everyone else — and especially not like that girl called Dana.
All Levi’s ads originally appeared in the following magazines:
1. The Face, July 1983.
2. i-D magazine, April 1987. Custom 501s by John Galliano.
3. Seventeen, March 1984.
4. Seventeen, February 1987.
5. Vogue, August 1987.
6. Elle, September 1987.