A single pair of Levi’s jeans, dating to the 1880s, sold at auction recently for $76,000, and the America-first-themed message found imprinted inside the garment could explain the record-setting acquisition.
The winning bid for the denim pants, found in an abandoned mine shaft in northern New Mexico, was more than 1,144 times the retail cost of the lowest-priced jeans currently available on Levi’s online store, KNTV reported.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Brit Eaton, a vintage expert who has been selling collectible jeans since the 1990s and claimed in an interview to have “arguably the best collection of early denim in the world, outside the Levi’s museum,” organized the auction as part of the Durango Vintage Festivus. Eaton launched the four-day, pop-up vintage clothing market in the New Mexican plains to raise funds to build a 12,000-square-foot warehouse “for housing his extensive collection of antique clothes,” the newspaper reported.
Zip Stevenson, who owns vintage clothing company Denim Doctors, paid for 10% of the jeans’ winning bid, with the balance covered by his partner Kyle Haupert, a San Diego resident who also deals with vintage clothing, KNTV reported.
Including the buyers’ 15% premium, the pair paid $87,400 total for the jeans, the Journal reported.
In addition to the holes and splatters one might expect to find on a roughly 140-year-old garment, the words “The only kind made by white labor” were also found imprinted on the garment’s interior, according to the newspaper.
San Francisco-based Levi’s confirmed that the phrase was added to its products following the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which instated a 10-year ban on all Chinese labor entering the United States, “during a time of rampant anti-Chinese discrimination,” the Journal reported, noting that the act was repealed in 1943 and condemned by Congress in 2011-2012.
During that time period, however, the tagline “made by white labor” was incorporated into all of its products and advertisements, the company confirmed.
Catherine Ceniza Choy, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley told KNTV that the phrase captured the sentiment of the era.
“It comes out of intersecting strands of racializing the Chinese as inferior, as ‘disease carriers,’ as economic competition,” Ceniza said, adding, “One of the things that we can learn is that the current surge in anti-Asian hate and violence against Asian Americans, especially around what has been called the ‘Chinese virus’ is not new.”
Meanwhile, Levi’s said in a prepared statement that the slogan was adopted in the hopes that it would “improve sales and align with the views of consumers at the time.”
“This continued into the 1890s, when we reversed our policy,” company officials stated, noting that the brand is fully committed to “advocate for real equality and to fight against racism in all its forms as it persists today.”
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