By  on March 2, 1994

DALLAS -- Remember when Levi Strauss reintroduced its original 501 Shrink-to-Fit button-front jeans in the mid-Eighties? The style, which had been the company's first back in 1853, came oversized, with instructions to wash it several times to achieve the correct fit.

But after developing a core audience, the style disappeared from the women's market, to be replaced by other Levi's prefaded, preshrunk and relaxed styles.

Nevertheless, there's a loyal women's audience for the original Shrink-to-Fit style that has been forced to cross over to the men's market to find the preferred fit. This customer says nothing can replace the fit of the original 501s: body-conforming, marked by a tight but not constricting seat and crotch as well as the classic denim fade -- a slow segue from indigo to chambray, rendered via repeated washings.

The fit isn't magic, though; it's science. The jeans are made from a patented denim that actually shrinks and conforms to the wearer's body, according to a Levi's spokeswoman. In fact, wearing someone else's 501s can be a real challenge if the jeans are very old.

Margie Hanselman, merchandise manager for Levi's Jeans for Women, said that the shrink-to-fit style is no longer made for women in the unwashed denim, which Levi's calls "rigid." Now, she said, the 501 style is made in the same material, but Cone Mills, which makes the fabric, shrinks the fabric before it's cut and sewn.

"We first introduced the 501s for women in about 1984, I believe," she said. "To be honest, they didn't fit very well. We discontinued it in the shrink-to-fit, but did it in the prewash, and we revised the fit. Since then, we've adjusted the fit again."

That hasn't stopped women from buying the men's 501, which is still made, but is hard to find. It helps to be west of the Mississippi River, according to Dwight Rose, a jeans buyer at Sears Roebuck & Co., Chicago.

"There's a very loyal following in the Southwest and on the West Coast for the original 501s," reported Rose. "We only sell the jeans west of the Mississippi, but they perform very well for us." He added that the jeans are found in about 250 Sears units.

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