Denim Banners – Art and Advertising for a Simpler Time
In the year 1967, Levi Strauss & Co.finally moved their advertising energies from romantic renderings of the Old West to trendier images of teens in new-fangled zip fly skinny jeans. The advertisements of the late 1960s were nearly indistinguishable from the previous three decades, the denim banner, which had for so long been a staple of Levi’s advertising disappeared, in its place emerged commercials with Jefferson Airplane, and more shocking, Levi’s jeans made without denim.
Jump back about thirty years and the denim landscape is very different. Lee has barely arrived on the scene and Wrangler doesn’t even exist yet. In the early 1930s, Levi’s was desperately trying to modernize, while contending with the Great Depression.
About the only good thing to happen to the West during the Great Depression, was the creation of large dude ranches. Droughts and falling cattle prices had driven many ranchers to the brink, but they found their salvation with wealthy Easterners who wanted to get away. Oddly enough, Levi’s would benefit from this new type of tourism as well. Women’s magazines like Vogue and Mademoiselle heartily recommended Levi’s jeans as the best brand for tourists in the West.
Long story short, for those beyond the Rockies, the inextricable tie was formed between Levi’s Jeans and the Wild West, so naturally, the Levi’s ad-men exploited this romantic connection in a series of banners released in the years before marketing jumped to the 1960s teen market.
The above silk-screened banners are gorgeous, but why were they made?
The answer may sound condescending at first, but there wasn’t an internet. With no /r/rawdenim and Superfuture to provide a space to discuss style, consumers were largely in the dark about their options. Certain western outfitters sent out catalogues, but these left much to the imagination. And in the years between the Depression and the transition to teen-marketing, there were many changes in the Levi’s 501 and consumers needed to be kept current.
The introduction of the red-tab and concealment of rivets both occurred in the 1930s and drastically changed the appearance of the garment. A probably apocryphal story set during World War II ends with a Levi’s salesman being chased off an Indian reservation for selling fake Levi’s, all because the arcuates were painted on because of wartime rationing.
So, a store who received and displayed one of these banners, not only notified the public that they were a Levi’s retailer, but also kept customers up-to-date on any changes in the product, that may otherwise have taken them aback.
The banners, when displayed in stores, were not unlike the novelty, oversized Levi’s (and Lees, above) that sometimes hang in today’s vintage stores. Not only do they catch the eye, but they show on a larger scale the details and construction that go into the garment.
In time, all the major denim brands used banners to show off their wares in their retailers. All were silk-screened and very limited-edition, as denim degrades the silk-screen after several hundred impressions. More importantly, each of the denim brands used their signature denim.
After all, consumers in the 1930s – 1960s, were not far removed from generations who, by necessity, made all their own clothes. By showcasing a huge banner, (usually 7-10 feet long) folks could get an idea of the quality and character of the fabric they were about to buy. In this way, old jeans-buyers were much like the modern generation of raw denim wearers.
The jeans could be prohibitively expensive and you could only invest in one new pair every year or so, so you wanted to be sure of the quality. The fabric was also important when it came to Lee and Wrangler, whose respective claims to fame were their sanforized denims, which were naturally different from Levi’s signature xx denim.
The above banner is on sale on eBay for $2,450 if you’re interested. Its price is not unusual, either. These banners can go from $1,800 all the way up to $5,000 depending on the year and condition of the piece. It’s not clear exactly when these banners became so valuable, but they have certainly only become rarer as the years wore on.
The novelty Levi’s Japan jackets featured earlier in the article were released in the early 2000s and we can possibly take their release as a resurgence of interest in these works of advertising art. The last two decades in the U.S. have seen a general uptick in vintage and denim awareness and as such, have increased the value of these already-rare pieces.
If you want your own, check out this auction in progress for a probably-real vintage banner for the unusally low price of $1,300!
The mantle of denim banner excellence has been passed across the Pacific to Japan. Japanese brands, specifically The Flat Head bring the same design principles to their own banners, which also evoke the American West. Although these banners are decidedly smaller than their vintage counterparts, they’re certainly your best bet if you’re in the market.
Although Flat Head may lead the pack with larger, more expensive, and more detailed banners, brands like Momotaro and Strike Gold offer their own interpretations, the prices of which hover closer to $80.