Don’t Discard Vintage Levi’s and Old Denim

Patches and drawings on vintage denim jackets can be of interest to collectors. Photo credit: Jimmy Garcia/EJ’s Auction & Appraisal.

If you’re like most people, you may have some old Levi’s and other denim packed away in a closet, garage, or storage unit. Did you know that some people will pay top dollar for vintage and older denim, particularly if it’s a rare brand or design?

Denim was invented accidentally in the 17th century when weavers in Nimes, France were trying to replicate the process of producing another sturdy fabric called serge. Here in the U.S., denim became popular in the Old West in the late 1800s when Levi Strauss & Co. introduced the first jeans, known as “waist overalls.” Not long after, they introduced the first jean jacket.

But Levi’s weren’t the only jeans available to consumers. Brands like Wrangler, Lee, OshKosh B’Gosh and others were also popular. Denim became popular with women in the early 1940s, when an American designer, Claire McCardell, began creating fashionable women’s clothing with it.

The hippie era of the 1960s was very good for jean manufacturers, and Levi Strauss & Co. dominated the market. In the 1970s and 1980s, famous designers like Gloria Vanderbilt and Calvin Klein used denim to create high-end jeans, jackets and other apparel for consumers. During these decades, it also became popular for people to adorn their jackets with embroidery, paint, glitter and other items.

What can you expect if you decide to sell your old jeans? It depends on a lot of factors, including age, condition, brand, labels, stitching, and even the fabric itself.

This vintage Levi's denim jacket sold for $250 at auction last month.
Photo credit: Jimmy Garcia/EJ's Auction & Appraisal.

Don’t mistakenly think an old, tattered pair of jeans may be worthless. In October 2022, a pair of Levi’s jeans from the 1880s sold at auction for $76,000 in New Mexico. The jeans were found in an abandoned mine shaft. Denim that have lasted a century or more can command a lot of money. Even Levi’s themselves paid $25,000 back in 1997 for a pair of circa 1890s 501 jeans. I’d estimate that those jeans could be worth more than $200,000 today if they are in good condition.

We see a lot of denim come through our auction house. In April 2022, we sold three pairs of new, never-worn Levi’s 501 and 517 denim jeans for $2,000. The vintage jeans did well in part because they still had all the original tags on them.

Last month, we sold a vintage Levi’s jean jacket with patches for $250. Part of the appeal may have been the Led Zeppelin and Rush patches and hand drawings on the jacket’s sleeves and back. In 2019, we sold a vintage Big E Levi’s denim jacket for $130. It was new and in good condition, but it also had selvedge fabric, which helped prevent the edges from unravelling. Bidders knew it was vintage because selvedge was phased out in the early to mid-1980s due to production efficiencies. 

It can be tempting to donate or discard old denim, especially if it’s been stored away for so many years. But don’t act hastily. What may not look special to you could be exactly what a collector is seeking.

Erik Hoyer owns EJ’s Auction & Appraisal in Glendale. Contact him at erik@ejsauction.comwww.ejsauction.com or 623-878-2003.

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