Over the centuries, people have migrated to the great American West, searching out riches and the opportunity to reshape their lives. It was likely those trying to change their fortunes needed a new wardrobe for their new vocation, and Levi Strauss was ready to provide them with hardwearing gear. But notable early Levi’s fans aren’t limited to 49ers. Because that template also fits the story of none other than Albert Einstein: After escaping Germany before World War II, the physicist made his way out to California, where he came into possession of a Levi’s leather jacket.
Now, that jacket is the crown jewel of an exhibition, titled “Levi Strauss: A History of American Style,” opening at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco on Thursday, February 13. In a phone conversation about the jacket with the brand’s historian, Tracey Panek, I couldn’t resist the urge to Power Rank off the bat: Is this the most famous Levi's jacket in history?
Panek ran me through the roster of contenders—like the riveted denim jacket from 1880 that’s the oldest in the brand’s possession, for example. But, ultimately, Panek came to the unavoidable conclusion that the jacket worn religiously throughout the life of one of history’s most well-known intellectuals (and on a 1938 cover of Time magazine!) is Levi’s’ most important artifact.
At the time Einstein got this jacket, Panek explained, Levi’s was still mainly a West Coast brand, with stores in Arizona, California, Nevada, and Utah, and just a few in places like New York. Einstein’s “Menlo” model, as it appeared in catalogs, was introduced in 1933. “Well, [Einstein’s] not your most typical Levi’s customer,” says Panek. “Back in the ’30s, we were catering to a working man.”
Einstein was a different breed of working man, but no less dedicated to his Levi’s jacket: Fellow scientist Leopold Infeld wrote in his memoirs that “one leather jacket solved [Einstein’s] coat problem for years.”
Despite the fact that Einstein wore the jacket in photos over the years, and in the illustration done for the aforementioned Time cover, the folks at Levi’s had no idea the jacket was theirs. It wasn’t until 2016, when the jacket came up for auction at Christie's in London, that Levi’s discovered Einstein had worn the brand all those years.
Panek was coincidentally in London for other official Levi’s business the week of the auction. It was her duty to go and raise her paddle to ensure the brand ended up with this piece of its history. An earpiece transmitting the voice of the brand’s president, awake at 2 A.M. in San Francisco, gave Panek the green light to keep bidding until she eventually won the jacket for $143,000. “I can tell you that my heart was definitely beating fast,” says Panek.
When the jacket arrived in San Francisco several months after the auction, Panek remembers smelling it before seeing it. Einstein was a prodigious pipe smoker, and the smell of smoke still permeates the jacket. “We opened up the crate, and the first thing you could sense was just that pungent smell,” she says.
The jacket still offers an olfactory experience, and attendees of the Levi’s exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum will be able to take in the scent of Einstein’s pipe through it. The exhibit will also include one of the oldest pairs of blue jeans in the world, from 1890, and letters Cary Grant sent to an Arthur Roth to thank him “for those four Western shirts that greeted my return from another recent trip to Europe.” Grant was grateful, he wrote, though not sure he could pull off the look. “I'm not at all sure if I can swagger out in gold-threaded finery. I shall await a braver mood.” We’re thankful Albert Einstein had no such concerns.