how to shop for vintage levis tips

Vintage Levis: A Comprehensive Guide

Remember that guide to buying vintage Levis you loved a while back? Well, it turns out, it’s not just you; it’s one of the most visited posts on this blog! So, as a natural follow-up, I decided to delve even deeper into the world of vintage Levi’s, and I’ve brought along a trusted expert to help us navigate the denim treasure trove. Meet Toni, the denim connoisseur behind my all-time favorite vintage Levi’s shop, Fairseason. Together, we’re taking a deep dive into the realm of vintage Levi’s. We know you’ve been itching to uncover the secrets of sizing and understand the nuances of different Levi’s styles. Well, I’m here to spill the beans on everything you’ve ever wanted to know about buying vintage Levi’s denim.

From decoding those iconic red tabs to finding that perfect fit, consider this your expert guide to vintage Levi’s. Let’s embark on a journey through denim history and style, all while ensuring you’re well-equipped to make the best vintage Levi’s choices.


How to Tell if Vintage Levi’s are Authentic

If you’re on the hunt for authentic vintage Levi’s, distinguishing the real deal from the imitations is crucial. Follow these tried-and-true tips to ensure you’re getting a genuine piece of denim history:

Look for the Big “E” on the Red Tab: The most celebrated emblem of vintage Levi’s is the coveted “Big E.” Denoting jeans crafted prior to 1970, this small but powerful detail resides in the red tab on the back pocket. The true test? Locate the capital “E” in “LEVi’s.”

Care Label Clues: Vintage Levi’s often sport a care label that’s as iconic as the jeans themselves. Distinctively white with red stitching, this label provides a clue to authenticity.

Check for the Vintage Levi’s Patch: In addition to the red tab, examine the leather patch on the back waistband. True vintage Levi’s often feature a patch with a “Two Horse” design, which is a significant marker of authenticity.

Silver Buttons and Rivets: The silver buttons and rivets on authentic vintage Levi’s are a testament to their craftsmanship. As you examine a pair, pay meticulous attention to these metallic details. Counterfeit jeans may attempt to mimic this authenticity, but the genuine silver accents remain a telltale sign.

Iconic Red Selvedge: For those who want the truest vintage experience, the red selvedge line is a narrative woven into the denim. This distinctive red line along the inner seam indicates jeans produced on old-style shuttle looms, a practice phased out in the late 1970s.

Different Vintage Levi’s Tabs & What They Mean

Levi’s tabs have evolved over the years, and each variation tells a unique story. Here are some of the most notable Levi’s tab styles and what they signify:

Red Tab with Big E: As mentioned earlier, the Big E is a hallmark of vintage authenticity. Levi’s aficionados treasure jeans with this iconic tab as a symbol of genuine vintage craftsmanship.

Orange Tab: Levi’s introduced the orange tab in the 1960s, often associated with a more relaxed fit and a youthful, casual style. These jeans are highly collectible and offer a distinct retro charm.

Silver Tab: Levi’s Silver Tab collection, popular in the 90s, is known for its contemporary, baggy fit. While not as old as the Big E or the Orange Tab, Silver Tab jeans are considered vintage today.

Black Tab: Levi’s Black Tab, often seen in the 80s and early 90s, was a departure from the traditional red tab. These jeans typically featured a slimmer fit and are a staple of the vintage denim scene.

vintage levis and striped tee
where to buy vintage levis

A Guide to Vintage Levis Sizing

These are the 3 most important tips you need to know when it comes to vintage Levi’s sizing.

1) Always know your measurements when you’re shopping in person or online. This is the best way to know what will actually fit you. If you have a sewing tape measure at home measure your waist at the smallest point & your hips at the largest point. If you’re at the flea market you can bring a tape measure with you to take flat measurements of jeans that you can’t try on.

Tip: Always measure yourself with your under garments on (bra and underwear) and hold the tape measure even and taught (not tight). You want to emulate how the garment will fit. If you’re measuring from a garment, lie it flat with no wrinkling or folding and measure across at the waistband, across the widest point of the hips, and from the center crotch seam to the top of the waistband. 

2) Don’t rely on your modern size. Current brands often employ a strategy called ‘vanity sizing,’ which means that if your waist measures 28″, your modern size off the rack will be a 26 or 27. This system is insidious for a few reasons. It tells women that we should be smaller than we actually are. It also creates overall confusion because each brand has a different sizing strategy that doesn’t address our real bodies. It drives me nuts!  Me too, girl, me too.

3) When you’re shopping for vintage Levi’s and the back or inside tag is still legible take a look at the waist measurement. If the jeans you’re looking at are marked size 30, they’ll most likely fit a 28″ waist. The rule of thumb is to subtract two inches from the marked size to figure out the actual size but always go off of measured size! This may seem weird, but there’s a reason why vintage Levi’s don’t measure according to the size that they are marked. Simply put, denim shrinks. I’m sure a lot of you have seen ‘shrink to fit’ on a Levi’s label and that’s what it means. When you wash and dry your Levi’s they shrink. Vintage Levi’s have already been worn, washed, & shrunk so that work is out of the way for you.

Alterations:  I have found great long length Levi’s which I cut into shorts and crops. The most important things are fit and wash.  Find a pair that fits you well and has a great wash and you can transform them from tapered jeans to shorts or crops in less than 20 minutes.  If the fit around the thighs is too baggy, take them to a good tailor and get them sewn in. Getting a baggier pair of jeans is better, as that gives your tailor more denim to work with and really give you that hugged around the thighs look.

A Guide to Vintage Levis Styles

There’s a reason why 501s are the best fit from all the vintage Levis, but there are other styles that are just as good. A good rule of thumb is if you’re looking for super high-waist jeans then shop women’s jeans, but if you want loose and casual then shop men’s jeans.

Vintage 501 Levi’s – The quintessential pair of Levi’s. Personally I think this fit is flattering on every size and it does wonders for the booty. This is a button fly, straight leg, mid rise fit. I think some of the butt magic comes from the fact that the back panel of fabric on a 501 is cut wider than the front panel. That means that the fabric from the back panel wraps around your rear to give it a hug & lift. The waistline of the 501 also takes a flattering dive down from back to front nipping the waist at just the right angle & giving you curves all around.

Levi’s 517 – This is a style that has a subtle flare, which we love. Depending on the era of your 517 it can be high waist or more of a mid-rise. 517s from the 70s, which often have an orange tab on the back pocket, have more of a high waist look, while 90s 517s are more of a mid-rise. All 517s have a zipper fly. We photographed a pair from the 90s. The flare on the 517 is slight, so it gives you a chance to create the illusion of longer legs with a heel peeking out of that little bell.

Levi’s 505 – This is a straight leg, mid rise cut with a zipper fly. The hip on the 505 tends to run narrow. The 505 is cut very straight. The back and front panels are equal width, unlike the 501. This gives you a crisp, tailored look. Like the 517, a 505 from the 70s will have a higher waist than a pair from the 80s or 90s.

Read this in depth guide for more info on the various styles!

Where to Buy Vintage Levis:

Hands down the best place to shop for vintage Levi’s is at the flea market or thrift store.  You’ll pay as little as $8 for a great pair of jeans, but you should know your sizing as you may not be able to try them on before you buy. Don’t ignore men’s jeans while on the hunt for your perfect vintage Levi’s. Most vintage Levi’s are men’s styles and sizing! All of my vintage Levi’s were found in the men’s section at the thrift store and flea market. Again, fit and wash are most important so venture beyond the women’s jeans and find something from the boys.

If you can’t swing by the flea market or prefer a more structured shopping experience, then try one of these spots:

Etsy: There are so many sellers and listings on Etsy, but here are a few of my fave shops for vintage denim.

Detour Vintage: prices are higher in the shop but it’s highly curated and the vintage denim is amazing

Gold Penny Vintage: a highly curated shop for vintage denim

Color Me Vintage:  specializes in vintage denim, but doesn’t charge an arm and a leg!

Shop Future: although a smaller selection, the Levi’s are SO good

RE/DONE: This is where you’ll find repurposed vintage denim. The pieces are hand cut and sewn for a perfect, modern fit but they are pricier than other options.

Free People x Rose Bowl Flea Market: Free People is currently offering a curated selection of vintage finds (including Levi’s) from Rose Bowl Flea Market sellers

Urban Outfitters: The “Urban Renewal” collection offers a good selection of vintage Levi’s that are sourced and updated.

Thank you for reading.

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