Rawr Denim’s Brief History Of Lee Jeans

A Brief History Lee Jeans

A Brief History Lee Jeans (Photo Courtesy of Matthews-Yokohama)

According to the patches on the back of Levi’s, their jeans are so tough that they can’t be torn in half by two horses pulling in opposite directions.  But are they tough enough to survive a 50 foot drop off a cliff in an old car?  Are they tough enough to survive an explosion after being sucked under a street sweeper?

Lee Jeans’ slogan has been “Can’t Bust Em” since the 1940’s, and Buddy Lee, Lee Jeans’ 12.5-inch-tall mascot, has been put through a lot more than explosions and car crashes to prove how tough the brand is. Lee was founded by Henry David Lee in 1889 in Salina, Kansas, as a workwear company that originally produced dungarees and jackets typical of the time.

In 1911, Lee manufactured their first bib overalls, but the company did not become a household name until 1913, when they pioneered the first full-jacket overall, the Lee Union-All.  The Union-All was marketed to farmers, mechanics and railroad workers, and was so successful that Lee opened several manufacturing plants over the next four years.

A Brief History Lee Jeans

Photo Courtesy of SelinaDowntown

The 1920s were a huge decade for Lee, seeing the birth of two of their claims to fame.  In 1920, Lee introduced their mascot, Buddy Lee.  Buddy Lee was one of the earliest company characters used in American advertising, and Buddy’s cheeky grin and shifty eyes are still recognizable today.

In order to prove how tough Lees were, Buddy was submitted to a number of brutal trials in his jeans, but he always survived them, smiling, thanks to his tough-as-nails workwear.  Buddy was even resurrected in 1999 for a few television advertisements aimed at promoting the Lee Dungarees line to youth.

A Brief History Lee Jeans

Photo Courtesy of Find-Logos-Here

In 1926, Lee was manufacturing a heavy, 13 oz. jean called the Cowboy Pant, marketed for seamen, loggers, and (obviously) cowboys.  The Cowboy Pant was also known as the Lee 101, and in 1926, Lee introduced the 101Z, the first jean with a zip-fly.  With the introduction of the zip-fly, Lee started offering their Cowboy Pants with tailored sizing and inseam measurements for a more personal fit.

Lee’s leather logo patch has also been through an interesting transformation as the company has evolved.  In 1936, “hair on hide” labels were stitched to the back of their jeans.  The company logo was branded directly onto cowhide to appeal to the cowboy lifestyle.

A Brief History Lee Jeans

Photo Courtesy of Lee-Japan

Ten years after the “hair on hide” label was introduced, Lee switched to their “twitch” label, which symbolized a steer’s twitch as the hot brand was pressed to its hide.

A Brief History Lee Jeans

Photo Courtesy of Lee-Japan

In the 1950s, denim began making its way into popular culture.  In 1954, James Dean could be seen wearing jeans in “East of Eden,” and Lee 101Z Riders quickly become one of James Dean’s jeans of choice.

A Brief History Lee Jeans

Photo Courtesy of VGLMen

With the budding casual market, Lee created their “Leesures” line, and over the next ten years developed stretch-pants and permanently pressed slacks, called Lee Prest.  By 1970, Lee was exclusively catering to fashion and exporting their garments to over 80 countries.

These days, Lee has launched a new upscale denim line called Lee 101.  The 101 line pays homage to the quality and craftsmanship responsible for the company’s concrete foundation, offering 13.25 oz.-13.75 oz. raw Italian and Japanese selvedge denim finished with their signature blue selvedge thread.  The Lee 101 line features details vintage leather logo patches and the “lazy S” stitching on the back pocket.

A Brief History Lee Jeans

Photo Courtesy of Lyst

While Rawr Denim does not recommend testing the grit of your Lees like Buddy Lee, we hope that owners of Lee Jeans can take comfort in knowing over a century of denim craftsmanship and innovation have gone into the Lee line.



North Carolina bred. Whiskey. Books. Rock n' Roll. Raw denim.

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  • http://twitter.com/Ben_Fab Benjamin Fabre

    great article !!!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/igorpelego Igor Moreira

    People here in the UK never buy into Lee. There is this image of “Cowboy Jeans” that doesn’t go away.
    Personally, I don’t see any appeal with what they do with their main line, but the Lee 101 range is simply awesome.

    • K.W

      I personally don’t like Lee jeans for their raw denim. It’s nevr r been a case of their cowboy image, more their quality. I much prefer the naked and famous brand. Yes it might be slight more expensive however there is great quality in the product

    • BB53

      The 101 IS Lee’s main line.
      What’s wrong with cowboys?

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  • Chris Hughes

    The Lee 101’s appear to be made in Poland, with some vintage stuff being made of Japanese denim and marketed as such – is there any difference in quality ?

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  • stillstanding72

    hey… Im trying to see what the pocket lining looks like… from the oldest ones. I got ahold of some fabric and this is where im hoping to find out if its worth saving.

  • alwaysright

    Lee. So much better than LVC.

  • pickanamevandderprickapaul

    not mentioned is the dumbass idea that lee in the US market nowadays uses square back pockets…

    • BB53

      I’ve bought four pairs of Lee jeans in the last couple of years in the US, including two pair this month and none had square back pockets.

  • ernsky

    Is the new LEE 101 to be made in Kansas, USA? using cone mills fabric from N.Carolina or japanese fabric?

  • Chet56

    I’ve always liked Lee Riders and have had several pairs over the many years I’ve worn blue jeans. I hope they haven’t ruined them in their need to “modernize.”

  • Fabian

    I wore them in the 70’s and 80’s,then they craped them with a new and ugly design,plus the denim’s quality dropped too….so..i stopped buying them period.In the 2000’s i wanted to wear them again,so i found the now called vintage ones,problem solved!.