Tips on buying vintage Levi's jeans.
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8 Tips On Buying Vintage Levi’s Jeans, According To Experts

“When you find the right pair it’s like a match made in heaven.”

by Shelby Ying Hyde

Denim is, without a doubt, one of the most commonly-shopped categories on the secondhand market. And while there are a handful of heritage brands leading the charge, vintage Levi’s jeans are king. In a documentary on the history of denim, culture critic James Sullivan calls the Levi’s Signature 501s “the bestselling garment” of all time and he’s not wrong. For decades, the brand has maintained its top spot in the industry and the demand continues to grow. So much so, that finding an exceptional pair — that won’t break the bank — is quite the task.

“Levi Strauss originated the brand in the 1870s and [it] has been synonymous with denim ever since,” explains Seth Weisser, CEO of luxury vintage retailer What Goes Around Comes Around, home to the largest offering of the Levi’s in the world, tells NYLON. “They’re iconic and have been worn by essentially every musician, celebrity, and fashion tastemaker you can think of. Owning the perfect vintage pair is like being part of an exclusive club. When you find the right pair it’s like a match made in heaven.”

But those that have spent enough time perusing the racks at their local vintage shop understand that you aren’t always that lucky. From size and fit to the overall uniqueness, there are several different components one must consider to ensure they find a vintage Levi’s pair that will last in their wardrobe. Should you get a little stick, it doesn’t hurt to enlist a little help from the professionals. New Jersey-based vintage shop, Alia Vintage specializes in assisting customers with finding jeans with their desired fit and look.

“Our team hand-picks each denim piece one by one to ensure we are picking the best fits, washes, and overall pieces that will withstand the test of time,” co-founder Arleny Almonte tells NYLON. Her personalized service also adds a personal touch to every pair of jeans, including Alia Vintage’s signature waist and pocket distressing.

“If we don’t have what you’re looking for we go out and find it,” adds Almonte. “We collaborate with each and every client to create a pair of denim that is unique to them, [starting with] taking waist and hip measurements to ensure that everything hugs your body right or is as loose as you would like, which is the hardest part when shopping for jeans. Once we find the base, we see what the client’s vibe is. Do you like distressing? Something more subtle, something super funky? Then we get to work and create!”

While services like Alia Vintage certainly take the guesswork out of finding your next new (old) pair of denim, in case you’re not sure where to start, here’s a comprehensive breakdown of everything you need to know about finding real vintage Levi’s jeans, ahead.

How To Find Vintage Levi’s Tip No. 1: Prioritize Thrift Stores Over Mainstream Boutiques

Any well-seasoned denim lover will tell you that some of the best finds come from your local thrift store at a reasonably low price. Buzzy vintage boutiques have a tendency to be overpriced, picked over, or both, while the shops in smaller towns and other untapped markets are often riddled with hidden gems. (Though, you may just have to dig a little.) Otherwise, be prepared to pay the inevitable finder’s fee that comes from the more curated selection at mainstream secondhand retailers.

However, in the age of online shopping, secondhand e-commerce site ThredUp is giving customers a chance to thrift online and, according to celebrity stylist Karla Welch, who has teamed up with the site to create a festival-themed edit, part of the appeal is being able to search the offering using certain filters — something you can’t do when shopping in person. “You can put in keywords and the collection gets narrowed down, which is great,” she says.

How To Find Vintage Levi’s Tip No. 2: Check For The Signature Tabs

A detail that sets Levi’s apart from other denim designs is its signature tab, present in a range of styles, at the back patch pocket. At first glance, many assume it’s for optics and aesthetics only but true purveyors of denim know that the little tag will tell you everything you need to know about your latest find. Both the colors and formatting of the tag details on Levi’s jeans are a way for shoppers to pinpoint where their particular pair is from.

“I’m a big Levi’s shopper,” Welch explains. “So I always look for an orange tag or a red line, which are from a really specific era.” The time period Welch is referring to gave way to some of the iconic brand’s most coveted designs to date, and are often indicators that you’ve got a good pair on your hands. Here’s our handy breakdown of every signature tab from Levi’s, below.

The Red Tag: One of the easiest ways for shoppers to spot a pair of Levi’s when browsing flea markets and local thrift spots is the red line tab with its logo embroidered in white at the back patch pocket. Patented in the late ‘30s, the signature detail was a way for the brand to separate its designs from other riveted jeans popping up on the market. You may also notice that some of the same tabs have a capitalized “E” in the Levi’s logo while others feature a lowercase “e” — this also matters. Styles made between 1936 and 1971 will contain a tab with an “E,” making them a rarer find. In some cases the tab is completely blank, aside from its trademark sign, which was a way to protect its designs against carbon copies.
The Orange Tag: In the ‘60s, Levi’s expanded from a traditional workwear brand into more fashion-forward designs and the orange-colored tab is a key indicator of this shift. Created as a way for the brand to differentiate its signature 501 style from newer cuts, the tab was the birth of its venture into “fashion denim.” Shoppers hoping to pinpoint the year their newfound vintage jeans are from, check the inside for a care label. Since it wasn’t required by law to include this tag until 1971, products made before then may not have one at all. This simple trick is a great way to determine whether a pair of Levi’s jeans was made in the ‘60s or ‘70s.
The Black Tag: If you come across a pair of Levi’s with a black tab and gold or white lettering, there’s a good chance they come from its “Sta-Prest” (pronounced: “stay pressed”) collection. Debuted in 1964 as a wrinkle-free denim alternative, the line was marketed as jeans that you could wear right out the dryer, no iron needed.
The Silver Tag: Vintage denim from the ‘80s and early ‘90s will more than likely have a silver-colored tab. Consider seeking out jeans from this collection if you’re looking for a baggier fit that sits low on the hips, a lá Bella Hadid, as it’s known for its retro grunge vibe. Today, Levi’s own secondhand e-commerce site is riddled with different styles, cuts, and washes from the silver tab line.
The White Tag: The rarest of the bunch, the white tag line ran between the ‘60s and ‘70s, mainly on the brand’s less traditional items, like corduroy and trucker jackets. It’s also commonly found on its “Levi’s for Gals” line, a womenswear subdivision created in 1968. This tag is designed in an aesthetically-pleasing font with colorful details to separate it from the more traditional details the storied denim label is known for.

How To Find Vintage Levi’s Tip No. 3: Examine For Wear And Tear

While denim has a reputation as being a fairly sturdy secondhand material, it still has its limits. According to Welch, if you’re not willing to put up with a range of patches and holes that are inevitable with older finds, it may not be worth the trouble, so don’t try to force it. Additionally, if you’re hoping to find your own customized fit, getting a pair of vintage jeans that already have that lived-in look may not be the way to go, as they’ve formed to their original owner’s shape and it could be more difficult to get the results you want. “You want the denim to feel worn,” Weisser seconds. “But not overworn, it’s important to check the condition of the crotch area for rips.”

How To Find Vintage Levi’s Tip No. 4: Forget Traditional Sizing

When it comes to vintage sizing, the general rule is that it’s almost always a little off by modern standards. This is especially true when it comes to secondhand denim. In other words, the size you think you are is probably not the one you’ll end up with, so it’s best to base your purchase on your exact measurements — waist, hips, and inseams — rather than what it says on the care label. Cuts will vary across men’s and women’s, as well, so it’s worth doing a bit of research to know what to expect in terms of the fit.

How To Find Vintage Levi’s Tip No. 5: The Fit Doesn’t Have To Be Perfect (But Should Be Very Close)

A pro tip that Welch shares about the vintage denim process is that while the fit is important, there is some wiggle room, so long as you have an alterations place on standby: “Sometimes I can find some really amazing, super baggy vintage Levi’s and because I’m also a person that tailors everything, if I find a pair of jeans and I like how the wash is taken and the legs are cut, I will know right away whether or not I want to just get them and tailor them down to make them perfect.”

How To Find Vintage Levi’s Tip No. 6: Try Them On

While this may seem like a no-brainer, in the age of online shopping you’d be surprised how many shoppers don’t think to try on the jeans before purchasing. First-timers entering the vintage Levi’s scene should take some time to try on different cuts and styles to ensure they find the pair that works best. The Levi’s 501 is a popular tried-and-true classic, but upon actually putting them on, you may find that they’re not your vibe, which is why trying a little bit of everything will heed the best results.

“Since its inception, it has been the go-to jean for everyone who has ever worn denim,” Weisser explains before offering a few alternatives. “We also recommend the 517, which was the original bootcut jean; it’s definitely one of the most coveted styles that we sell.” For Almonte, the feel is just as important as the fit, which is another reason why customers should see them in person, when they can. “As soon as you touch and feel the thickness of the jean you know if it’s a great pair,” she says.

How To Find Vintage Levi’s Tip No. 7: Keep An Open Mind

One of the unspoken requirements of shopping these untapped markets is being open to whatever denim gems you may come across. It’s best to eliminate any expectations, so that you’re not disappointed if you don’t find exactly what you’re looking for. Instead, try going into it with an abundance mindset, and see what cool new items you come across. This is true with vintage Levi’s jeans because there are so many different cuts, rises, washes, and categories available, especially online. Why limit yourself, when you may find a pair that you never knew you were missing, until now?

How To Find Vintage Levi’s Tip No. 8: Trust Your Instincts

However, use discernment. Don’t force a fit when there isn’t one, and realize when a pair of jeans just isn’t meant to be. Whether that means no amount of tailoring will save it, or the wear is just far too much to make it a viable piece for your closet, don’t be afraid to pass on them just because they’re close to what you want or are a steal. “If you’re asking [whether or not a pair is too worn], you already have your answer,” says Welch. “It’s really a gut feeling. Vintage shopping in general is about trusting your instincts.”