In 1999, Time magazine declared Levi’s 501s the “best” fashion item of the 20th century, narrowly edging out the miniskirt and little black dress. Inextricably linked to the romance of the cowboy and the great American West, the blue denim jean—with copper rivets—helped launch the careers of stars like John Wayne and Elvis Presley, and was the de facto uniform at Woodstock. With “Levi Strauss: A History of American Style,” a new exhibition that traces the company’s evolution from local dry-goods store to pop-culture icon, the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco looks at how it all began.

Patented in 1873 by San Francisco merchant Levi Strauss and a tailor named Jacob Davis, the first jeans were fundamentally functional, a garment designed for laborers, from the Chinese immigrants who built the transcontinental railroad to poor prospectors hunting for gold in the California and Nevada deserts. It was actually the copper rivets, not the blue denim, that initially made jeans a success. Davis came up with the design while mending miners’ pants in Reno, Nevada, reinforcing stress points with metal rivets instead of thread.