Saturday, 28 August 2010

Steve McQueen's Jeans (Part One)

People, especially advocates of cockney rhyming slang, think of Steve McQueen as synonymous with jeans (those cheeky chaps say "Steve's", which is short for "Steve McQueen's", which is rhyming slang for "jeans"). He wears them in only a few of his movies, though. He has blue denim beneath his chaps in the odd western scene. It's one item of Steve McQueen clothing, in fact, that's sometimes less than perfectly pitched and, to paraphrase the man himself, the difference between cool and uncool is in the details. Lee 101Z should be slim-fit with a great finish, but the ones in Junior Bonner are merely tight and those in The Hunter too light.

The Hunter (1980)

Jeans are the only item of clothing with more of a mythology than Steve McQueen. Given all this, the next couple of posts will present an overview of denim and point out bits of general interest, as well as try to find where it crosses paths with Steve McQueen's sense of style.

Levi's red selvedge

Manufacturers used to weave denim on narrow shuttle looms, which created self-finished edges called selvedge. (Self-finished edge ... self-edge ... selvedge.) It made for lasting jeans. The inside selvedge created a distinctive effect to which mills usually added coloured lines unique to each jean company (which for Levi's were usually red). The edges of modern mass-produced denim are cut on projectile looms, but the last few years have seen an increase in denim made the old way.

On location, in the backwoods of Columbus, Texas, for Baby, The Rain Must Fall (1963) from the book Steve McQueen: Photographs by William Claxton

Many people wear turn-ups nowadays, not least to show off the selvedge and chain-stitched hem (we'll get to that). Steve McQueen usually wore denim that erred on the side of short, and when he did have a turn-up it was narrow.

Dry 1947 Levi's 501 reproduction

Levi's recreates the definitive jean, the 1947 version of the 501, in all its selvedge glory. They're made in the USA on shuttle looms, and the best are unwashed, also known as raw or dry, which is as dark blue as dark blue denim gets. Oi Polloi sells them for £215.

Unless it's preshrunk or sanforized, which is a process to lessen shrinkage, denim will reduce in size noticeably in the wash. The size of jeans made with shuttle looms can be erratic, but the rule for unsanforized denim like those 1947 501s is to buy one up from usual. Any indigo denim will also fade in the wash. It's difficult to say which method provides the best compromise to shrink-to-fit your jeans and preserve the colour. You can turn them inside out and soak them in a cold bath, or you can get into them and have a cool bath or shower. Denim loses indigo by transfer as well. Until that first soak or you've worn them for a while, be careful with white T-shirts and the like.

It'll take a few goes to shrink unsanforized denim to its full extent. You can use various methods to avoid unwanted shrinkage and loss of colour. Rather than put them in the machine, hang them up to air when they smell. Put them in a plastic bag in the freezer for the night. Take them to the dry-cleaners. You could write a book on the procedures people have to look after their denim. It'd be a boring book, though.

Sugar Cane 1947, unwashed

People swear by Japanese denim. Sugar Cane has made jeans for years, and it produces incredible selvedge 1947 501 replicas. The Levi's version of the 1947 501 is more Steve McQueen, though. It's slimmer and the back pockets are smaller. It looks more modern.

Sugar Cane 1947, unwashed with broken arcuate double stitching and red tab

Until Levi's made it stop, you could get Sugar Cane 1947 with cool broken arcuate double stitching on the back pockets. Some also had a red tab that read "CANE'S" just like "LEVI'S". If you are interested in Sugar Cane 1947, you can buy them from American Classics in glittering London's Covent Garden, which also stocks the unwashed Levi's version of the 1947 501 along with all manner of excellent clothing.

Many premium jeans are sold at fixed length. Take into account shrinkage if you want to shorten them, and take them to a specialist if you want to preserve a chain-stitched hem. Chain stitching is ornamental embroidery, with which manufacturers used to hem jeans. (The hems of modern mass-produced jeans are lock stitched, which is more effective.) The jeans shop Son Of A Stag, on glittering London's Brick Lane, has four American vintage Union Special machines (three in the shop, one in the warehouse) with which to provide a chain-stitch service.

 Dry 1967 Levi's 505 reproduction

The dry selvedge 1967 Levi's 505 represents Steve McQueen's time more than the 1947 501. They're zip-fly, preshrunk (so you can go for your normal size) and slightly slimmer. Oi Polloi does them for £140.

Dry 1952 Lee Japan 101z reproduction by Edwin

Most of the best Lee jeans are made by Lee Japan. Most of the best Lee Japan jeans, in turn, are actually made by Edwin, a Japanese company established 1947 and renowned for its quality. The classic Lee is the 101 (a Z on the end means zip-fly, a B button-fly). Consider a pair of dry 1950s Lee Japan 101 reproductions if you can get them in your size (they're sanforized). You can go one better, in terms of quality, than Lee Japan jeans made by Edwin. Another Japanese brand, The Real McCoy's, specialises in high-end replicas of classic American clothing and is licensed to reproduce Lee jeans.

The problem with all this besides cost, of course, is obtainability. Go to shops like Son Of A Stag. Try to get lucky online with Google, eBay and Rakuten, Japan's vast shopping website.

Lee 101Z reproduction of Steve McQueen's jeans in The Hunter by Toys McCoy

Toys McCoy (now at least a separate business to The Real McCoy's) produced a replica of the Lee 101Z from The Hunter. Except they put the fucking name Steve McQueen on the Lee patch.

Toys McCoy Steve McQueen 930

Toys McCoy makes another pair of relevant premium jeans. Criticism again centres on the patch, which has the word Toys on it and a picture of Steve McQueen and the name Steve McQueen in even bigger fucking letters.

All these lot numbers and variations are dizzying, I know, but one last recommendation. The 1966 Lee 101Z reproduction represents Steve McQueen's time as the 1967 Levi's 505 does. The 101Z is the classic slim-fit McQueen jean, though. If you can get hold of the 1966 version then you should (it actually has more of a connection with The Beatles, but that's another story).

Part two of this post will concentrate on modern jeans that in their own way can get you as close to Steve McQueen's cool as the vintage styles.

Next time: will be shorter.


  1. Additional thoughts:

  2. It looks like it's style then a color code. So good to know. I've been searching for another pair of my favorite jeans for a while! Www.Denimio.Com

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