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Searching For That 501 Fit: Gone but not Forgotten, Women’s Original Levi’s 501 Shrink-to-Fits are Missed so Much That Some Women Have Taken to Wearing the Men’s Jeans

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...

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.

In Dallas, in fact, the denim department of Sears is one of a very few stores in the area that sell the jeans.

A trip to Sears at Irving Mall, near Dallas, found two stacks of 501s relegated to a corner near a stock room. Size ranges were fairly deep, though, with the jeans priced at $31.99.

J.C. Penney Co. Inc. here stocks shrink-to-fit 501s at 371 units, many of which are on the West Coast, according to Rich Hopfe, assistant jeans buyer at Penney’s.

“Tradition is a strong appeal of the original 501s,” Hopfe noted. “And the button-fly customer is probably the most loyal customer in jeanswear.”

“I would still be wearing the original 501s had I known they were available,” said Terry Propps, a circulation manager here. “The fit is so great. They conform to my body.”

“I have one pair of shrink-to-fit 501s left, but I thought they had stopped making them,” said Shirley Esposito, an artistic director at a hair salon here. “They’re pretty threadbare, though, and I can’t wear them in public. Tell me where to get some more and I’ll go today.”