I left my pants in San Francisco.
The story of my pants begins in 1967 during the Summer of Love. I wanted to be part of that scene but was just a 15-year-old hippie wannabe stuck in suburban Maryland, 3,000 miles from San Francisco. But three years later, my family moved to Fresno. At least I was in California. The art department at Fresno State was my destination and I immediately began to craft my memorable, fancy pants.
Today, expensive worn, torn and distressed jeans are sold off the rack. In 1970, I paid 75 cents for a pair of faded Levi’s 501 straight-leg button-fly jeans at Cherry Avenue Auction. Jeans with the copper rivets, the little red Levi’s tab, and the faded leather patch on the back proving they were genuine. Some hard-working laborer had no doubt given those pants their well-worn look through years of honest toil.
Within weeks, the fabric of the jeans began to split across the front of the thighs and at the knees. I patched the splits with iron-on tape from my mom’s sewing basket. Later I hand-stitched the edges of those patches when they curled away from the denim. The evolution of what I came to call my “patch pants” began. My sewing and patching skills improved as quickly as my pants deteriorated.
Patches made of fabric remnants contributed by my girlfriend, Susan, were my next additions. The floral print scraps became a catalog of a dozen dresses she sewed for herself in those days. Those inspired further additions – patches that didn’t strictly cover any defect but just looked cool. They included chair upholstery from home and a Post Office patch from a thrift store. My grandmother contributed 1950s silk ties with dated geometric patterns and one with an embroidered Chinese dragon.
A self-respecting hippie guy mustn’t be without bell bottoms, so I converted the traditional jeans by inserting denim triangles into the sides to get that jumbo-sized, bell-bottom flare.
The jeans were a crazy-quilt patchwork of personal meaning and memory; walking, wearable art.
Eventually the jeans barely held together and layers of more patches made it difficult to get them on. I enrolled in an art department fabric construction course and seized the opportunity to forever stabilize the disintegrating denim. I slit my pants up the seams so they could lie flat and go through the jaws of the powerful Husqvarna sewing machines we used. Even more patches and decorative trim were stitched onto the pants by running the zig-zag attachment up and down endlessly. Artistically speaking, my pants had arrived at the ultimate integration of texture, color and form.
Susan and I married and my clothing became prosaic. Decades passed and I said farewell to my 32-inch waist. I would never fit in those pants again. But I wouldn’t part with them, either. I put them away, a nostalgic artifact of my vanished youth.
But this story ends in San Francisco, not in my closet.
Bolinas Museum curator Elia Haworth heard about my jeans through the Hansen family grapevine. Haworth included the pants in her museum’s “Counter-Culture & Creativity” exhibition this summer. I had missed California’s Summer of Love – but not its 50th anniversary.
A color photo of the patch pants from that show grabbed the attention of Tracey Panek, historian at the Levi Strauss & Co. Archives in San Francisco. Tracey invited me to drop by with my jeans. The following week I arrived by appointment with an entourage of family at Levi’s Plaza. Inside, an exhibition area with decorated Levi Strauss garments from the ’60s and ’70s awaited us – could my pants end up there? Tracey treated us to a tour of The Vault and to a workroom housing the fireproof safe that protects the rarest and oldest Levi’s jeans.
Tracey and a fellow conservator soon huddled over my patch pants, examining them in detail, calling out noteworthy details confirming the pedigree of the jeans, and cataloging the rag bag of fabrics I had applied. They only had to observe the giddy look on my face when they put on the white cotton gloves to handle my treasured patch pants to know that I’d say “yes” when asked to donate them to the permanent collection of their archives.
The jeans are on display through November as part of the “Express Yourself” exhibition and I don’t regret the day I left my pants in San Francisco.
Doug Hansen is a Fresno-born artist, children’s book author and former Fresno Bee artist. He teaches illustration at his alma mater, Fresno State, and lives in Clovis. See his work and reach him through his website at doughansen-art.com.
Doug Hansen’s “patch pants” will be on display as part of the Levi’s “Express Yourself” exhibit Nov. 13-29, and possibly again in January.
Where: Levi Strauss & Co., 1155 Battery St., San Francisco
Hours: 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekends