Two California-based vintage clothing hunters recently scored a pair of Levi's at auction with a surprising price tag: $76,000 ($87,400 if you include the 15% buyer’s premium). More shocking than the final bid, however, is the pocket inscription found on the jeans, which were produced circa 1880.
In addition to more prosaic quality assurances—including “best sewing,” “best finish” and “best materials”—the tailoring detail announces that these jeans are “the only kind made by White Labor.”
The equation of “white” with “best” reflects racist attitudes held by many white Americans in the wake of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which marked the first time immigrants were kept from coming into the United States based solely on race. The act prohibited the arrival of Chinese laborers for 10 years, was extended in 1892 and made permanent in 1902. The restrictions were not lifted until 1943.
History is visible on the denim in other ways, too. Wax drippings from prospectors’ candles spot the surface, and the jeans have a single back pocket and suspender buttons—Levi’s did not add belt loops until 1922.
Levi's was founded in San Francisco in 1853, when Bavarian immigrant Levi Strauss opened a dry goods store and eventually began making durable pants for miners out of tent canvas. Strauss and Jacob received a patent for their riveted design in 1873.
The historic Levi’s were discovered in an abandoned mine by “denim archaeologist” Michael Harris, according to The Wall Street Journal. The jeans are short and squat, with a 30-inch inseam and a 36-inch waist, and in remarkable condition given their age.
California-based vintage clothing collectors Zip Stevenson and Kyle Haupert joined forces to seal the deal at the four-day Durango Vintage Festivus—a denim-focused gathering in the tiny town of Aztec in northwest New Mexico. The opening bid was $28,000, but by the time the gavel finally fell, the bidding had climbed to $76,000.
Despite the high price, they’re not the most expensive jeans ever sold. A similarly-aged pair of vintage Levi’s sold for nearly $100,000 in 2018.
Haupert, a 23-year-old from San Diego who put up 90% of the funds and owns the business Golden State Vintage, captured the winning moment on Instagram. Stevenson, an established figure in vintage clothing circles, runs the Los Angeles shop Denim Doctors where the historic jeans are currently kept under lock and key and are viewable by appointment only.
The sale brought attention to the first year of the denim festival founded by Brit Eaton and also to the two collectors—video of the purchase has been viewed more than 20,000 times online.
The auction attendees, sitting on plastic folding chairs, quickly became animated as the price started pushing up. “We’re making freaking history,” someone calls out.
Julie Zigoris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org