The 20th Century was a time of immense change in the world of branding: logos and trademarks became the new form of communication in the modern world, and everyone from Nike and Calvin Klein to McDonalds and Apple were opting in. The Twentieth Century was ballsy and in your face and most logos, slogans and catch phrases that we are familiar with today were born during this pivotal time.

In this article, we’re going to explore the invention of the king of denim branding: The Levi’s Red Tab Device. Seeing as we’ve become all too familiar with the ‘Big E’ / ‘small e’ discussion, we wanted to dive deeper into the more recent history of this strong and symbolic piece of branding and analyse the tabs proliferation since the mid-1960’s. We will explore how recent pop culture has inspired the opportunity for collaboration and iteration of this iconic symbol and how that has in fact strengthened its value rather than diluted it.

Red Tab Big E (Long-John)

When we trace all the way back, Levi’s Strauss’ initial claim to fame was the patent of the rivet. This small piece of copper marked a giant step for the future of denim and in the years that followed, became a crucial part of the Levi’s image and brand. As well as denoting innovation, it became a hallmark. But after the patent lapsed, other brands jumped on the bandwagon, realizing its practicality and the extra durability that it added to a pair of ‘waist overalls’. During the early Twentieth Century many brands also used similar back pocket stitching (or ‘arcuates’) and it became increasingly difficult to tell whose jeans was whose. Levi’s needed to differentiate themselves further and they needed to be bold. In 1936 – just prior to the outbreak of war – one of the most discernible details of the five pocket jean was born: the Tab Device. 

Commonly known as the ‘red tab’ in today’s world, this small woven label has become the epitome of Levi’s branding since its invention over eighty years ago. It has been the focal point of advertising campaigns, the fascination of vintage collectors, has graced the front of album covers, and more than likely, the rear of any celebrity you can think of. According to Nick Williams – Denim Historian and Graphic Designer –

“without a doubt the most famous woven label in the denim world is Levi Strauss & Co.’s red Tab Device” and “there [is] no denying that the bold little red tab [stands] out among the sea of indigo”.

Originally the idea of National Sales Manager Chris Lucier who suggested to insert “a folded cloth ribbon in the structural seam of a rear patch pocket”, the tab trademark has been protected by the brand and reserved for its exclusive use since 1936. Levi’s Historian Tracey Panek elaborated on its origins noting that

“Chris [Lucier] – whose son Jack designed the Levi’s® Type III trucker jacket in the 1960s – came up with the idea for the red tab when he was visiting Santa Cruz, California. It was while Chris was in Santa Cruz that he noticed how many people were dressed in Levi’s®, along with other brands. He knew that Levi’s® needed to be distinguished easily in a crowd. That’s when he hit on the idea of adding a piece of red ribbon to the back pocket as a contrast to the indigo blue”

And the rest as they say, is history. 

Interestingly, the trademark not only applies to the ‘Levi’s’ font on the tab, but the tab itself. Hence why the brand has to produce a certain number of Levi’s Products with just the ‘’ on a plain tab in order to maintain trademark rights. 

Shortly after Levi’s adopted Lucier’s suggestion, the brand ran a series of adverts that included the phrase “Look for the Red Tab” during the 1940’s and 50’s, making the tab inseparable from the Levi’s brand. Even during the Second World War (when many elements of the 501 were restricted due to saving materials for the war effort), the red tab remained, showing just how crucial it was to the image of Levis. 

‘Look for the red tab’ advertising

Whilst the tab has broadly stayed the same since the 30’s, there have been some significant changes during its storied history. The most impactful of those is obviously the change from ‘Big E’ to a ‘small e’ in 1971. This has been widely discussed over the years and was recently highlighted by Levi’s with its release of the ‘Golden Ticket’ 1971 501 jeans for the 2020 501 Day. Levi’s Vintage Clothing (LVC) Head Designer Paul O’Neill had always wanted to do ‘something’ around the year 1971 due to it being a huge moment in the vintage world. After spitballing with colleagues at LVC, they finally settled on the Golden Ticket after being fascinated by the tale of Willy Wonka. Having created only 5 Big E pairs, Paul is hoping to find out where they land… 

‘Golden Ticket’ Tab 2020

But since the 1960’s we’ve seen a huge increase in variations of the Tab Device, whether to differentiate in-house lines within the brand (such as a blue tab for Made & Crafted) or to commemorate a collaboration or special project (such as Tremaine Emory’s ‘Denim Tears’ capsule collection). Reflecting on the Levi’s Archive, Tracey comments that “I haven’t counted them all up, but there are dozens of tab variants that exist on garments in the Levi Strauss & Co. Archives”. Paul references popular culture and fashions of the period as the reason for the brand diversifying; “I think there was so many different categories being produced from the early 60s that the tab was a great way to separate or categorize things”. For example, “White Levi’s’ from the early-60s used a white tab and focused on the non-denim student or Ivy League look. This was when Levi’s started to really look at the youth market for the first time, which would really blow up at the end of the 1960s with the Orange Tab products. Orange Tab was very fashion focused”.

1960’s Orange Tab

The invention of the Orange Tab line during the 60’s allowed designers to be more experimental and directional, giving them the freedom to respond to trends or try new things. Not having to conform to the core denim restraints of the red tab, the Orange Tab opened the opportunity for what was to come; with variations being aligned to a particular garment or collection. Levi’s were able to retain the image and purity of the red tab for its core denim line, but it showed the company was moving forward with the world around it. You only have to look to the popular culture of the late 60’s in the company’s native San Francisco, to understand the influences that surrounded the brand at this pivotal time. 

According to Paul, it was the Levi’s first slim-line jean silhouette that set the trend for a variety of tabs;

The super slims which became the 606 [jean] is interesting from a tab perspective. The first iteration came in around 1965 and was essentially Levi’s first skinny jean. The tab was black with orange lettering, which is a tab you don’t see too much in the vintage market. When Levi’s went full on into the fashion fits in ‘69 with the Orange Tab line it was a reverse version of this tab that was used (orange base with black writing). This version of the 606 super slim with the orange tab is the one most people know, although it had been produced for 4 years prior to this with a different tab”.

One variant of the tab which has recently returned to the limelight is the ‘carrot tab’ associated with the 1970’s ‘Fresh Produce’ line, replicated by Levi’s Vintage Clothing for SS20. Comprised of a range of garments including corduroy bomber jackets, washed denims and retro overalls, the collection references the San Francisco Artists’ Soap Box Derby which took place in 1975 to raise money for the SF Museum of Modern Art (with Levi’s being one of the event sponsors). Offering up a palette of bright pastel colours, you can see the playful carrot tab adorning the apricot Bomber Jacket as a nod to the 1975 original. A firm favourite of Tracey and Paul as it always brings a smile and “still feels so contemporary”. The original collection was apparently popular in Canada upon its release and that carrot tab was central to the branding. 

Carrot Tab

Levi’s continued their journey to diversify into the 80’s with the introduction of the Silver Tab line in 1988. The collection came to represent the baggy denim trends of the time and the onset of ‘Grunge’ in the early 90’s. The collection was a sure-fire hit and showed that Levi’s could still be connected to a young and hip customer, while maintaining their established brand image. This was a crucial time for what we now know as ‘street culture’ with the advent of hip hop and skateboarding reaching the mainstream. Baggy and loose ‘anti-fits’ became popular, with customers buying 2-3 sizes bigger than their size and letting the leg of the jean stack on their footwear. Arguably, Silver Tab marked a monumental shift for Levi’s and set in motion how the brand (and wider fashion world) would react to the next 30 years of street style. So impactful that Levi’s resurrected the collection back in 2018 for a new customer, again reacting to the spotlight on 90’s fashions at the time. 

Silvertab, Denim Dudes’ personal collection

With the era of the ‘Hypebeast’ in full swing in recent years, artist and brand collaborations became the new norm at Levi’s. From rappers to skateboarders and graffiti artists to established designers, it now seems like every week there’s a new must have ‘drop’ in conjunction with up-and-coming street talent. And it’s fair to say that Levi’s have continued to keep their finger on the pulse with a list of high profile collaborations including Futura 2000, Tremaine Emory and Motofumi ‘Poggy’ Kogi to name a few. In addition, collaboration has taken the shape of brand x brand partnerships, seeing Levi’s work with the likes of ALIFE, KITH and Off White, to cement their kudos over recent years. And of course, how can we forget the Levi’s x Stranger Things collaboration of 2019, which famously employed the concept of the ‘Upside Down’ into the collection even including – you guessed it – the tab. While Levi’s are protective of the tab and what it represents, it’s refreshing to see the brand allow artistic freedom and flexibility with this small but sizable piece of denim branding when it comes to collaborations. 

Futura 2000 x Levi’s Tab

So what was it that opened Levi’s up to this recent wave of experimentation? After Silvertab the brand played a little with scale in their Levi’s Red collection but on the whole stayed reasonably conservative throughout the 90’s and early 00’s when it came to tab design. Paul sites the release of the ‘Mirror Jean’ in SS17 which used a reversed red tab on the left back pocket (the result of a happy accident with the unearthing of a roll of deadstock left hand twill denim at the Cone Mills White Oak plant) as somewhat of a turning point for tab design, remarking that

“the release of the Mirror Jean opened the doors to approaching our branding and historic garments differently. It was the unique circumstances that made the Mirror Jean happen and I’m really happy it happened as its success gave us more freedom to approach our history in a new way”

The recent Levi’s Japan release was a natural progression to this, which included a conventional Tab Device but with Japanese Katakana characters. Speaking with the graphic designers behind the Japan Jean, Nick Jones and Ben Lamb of Nature Studio, they “worked with a Japanese designer, Akihito Nakayama on the project and started out by getting the word ‘LEVI’S’ typed out in Kanji in as many different fonts as possible – We were looking for something that reflected the current branding, with similar wide vertical and thin horizontal elements. From there we took some type that we liked as a starting point to redraw a unique customized Japanese (Kanji) version of the word LEVI’S”. The result was a 1966 501 jean with perfectly executed Kanji on the tab and back patch, paying homage to Levi’s long standing relationship with Japan over the decades. 

Levi’s Japan Jean tab in Kanji

Looking back on the last 80 years of the tab, it’s pretty clear that this small but sizable piece of denim branding has made an impact far greater than its size. The Consumer Insights team at Levi’s found that out of all the product branding iconography in the market, the tab is among those which resonate most strongly with customers. For us, the guys at Nature Studio put it best; “it’s simple, memorable and impactful, which is what makes powerful branding. It’s slightly sexy too, and in 1937 it must have been considered risky to position a bright red woven label on peoples butts!”. 

For us, there’s no question that the tab is largely responsible for distinguishing Levi’s in the denim marketplace all these years later. But it’s more than just the red tab or ‘Big E’, the Tab Device has come to represent social justice causes, commemorate accomplished American athletes and acknowledge artistic talent. The tab has become part of fashion’s cultural language and has been (literally) woven into the fabric of street culture through countless collaborations.  It’s beautifully simple yet bold branding represents the legacy of Levi’s and much, much, more. 

This article was made possible with the involvement and support of the following; Ben Lamb  and Nick Jones (Nature Studio), Uchida Masahiro (Levi’s Strauss & Co.), Paul O’Neill (Levi’s Strauss & Co. LVC), Tracey Panek (Levi’s Strauss & Co Archives.) and Nick Williams (4th Avenue Graphics). 

 

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