Today, we’re celebrating the birthday of a Jewish immigrant who came to the U.S. from Germany to escape the anti-Semitism prevalent across Europe, and whose clothing is a central element of the exhibition Levi Strauss: A History of American Style. If you’ve read our last few blog posts, this might sound suspiciously familiar. Didn’t we just celebrate Levi Strauss’s birthday? Don’t worry—we haven’t mixed up the dates! Today’s post is all about another icon with a surprisingly similar background, who also figures prominently in the exhibition: Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879–April 18, 1955).
While even the most right-brained among us are familiar with E=mc2, you’re probably less familiar with Einstein's connection to Levi Strauss & Co. Although Einstein isn’t known for wearing jeans, one of the most exciting items in the exhibition is a piece of clothing belonging to the scientist: his beloved Levi’s® “Cossack” leather jacket. This is one of the rarer, non-denim items of Levi Strauss & Co. apparel, but one that’s still a key icon of American style—Marlon Brando’s leather jacket, along with his Levi’s® 501® jeans, was a definitive part of his character’s rebellious persona in The Wild One (a photo of Brando’s ensemble is also featured in the exhibition). Ironically, the leather jacket was also a perfect fit for Einstein’s wardrobe, which was famous for its uniformity and lack of variety. The leather jacket was wearable at any time of the year, and as a colleague of Einstein’s recounted, the durable garment solved his “coat problem” for years. Einstein was pictured wearing the jacket throughout the 1930s, including on the cover of Time magazine in 1938.
The jacket’s status as a Levi’s® garment was not well-known until recently; during the 1930s, it was relatively unusual for Levi’s® to reach people outside of the West Coast, and Einstein didn’t fit the workingmen demographic to whom the brand usually appealed. Because of this, Levi Strauss & Co. didn’t even know the jacket was theirs until 2016! Upon finally acquiring the piece at an auction, Levi Strauss & Co. Historian Tracey Panek noted that it still smelled pungent from the pipes Einstein famously smoked.
Featuring a garment belonging to Albert Einstein is exciting in and of itself, especially one that has never before been exhibited, and the jacket joins many pieces in the exhibition that showcase the wide-ranging relevance and functionality of Levi’s® clothing. But the jacket takes on deeper significance in light of Einstein’s and Levi Strauss’s parallel backgrounds as Jewish immigrants, and Einstein’s own work in immigration advocacy.
Almost a century after Levi Strauss emigrated from Germany, Albert Einstein arrived in Pasadena, California (where he had previously taught at the California Institute of Technology). Like Strauss, he would not return to his home country; as Einstein’s fame and influence in the scientific world increased, so did the anti-Semitic attacks lobbied against him, and he made the decision to renounce his German citizenship and remain in the U.S. when Hitler was appointed chancellor in 1933. As a Jew, Einstein would have been stripped of his civil liberties and barred from resuming his professorship in Berlin if he had returned to Germany.
As an asylum-seeker himself, Einstein spent much of the next years helping other scientists and Jews fleeing Nazi rule to submit visa applications. Later, Einstein worked with the NAACP to help in the fight for civil rights. When he became an American citizen in 1940, the scientist marked the occasion with a speech on I Am An American, a radio show that worked to promote the inclusion of immigrants. In another speech at the 1939 World’s Fair, he again voiced his support of immigrants' rights and highlighted their role in building the country, saying that “These, too, belong to us, and we are glad and grateful to acknowledge the debt that the community owes [immigrants].”
The story of the blue jean is largely an immigrant-driven story. Einstein’s jacket is just one of the many items in this exhibition that remind us just how much of our own style, San Francisco’s history, and American culture wouldn’t exist without the immigrant stories with which they’re intertwined. On his birthday, we’re honored to be able to showcase Einstein’s jacket both as a reminder of his identity as an immigrant rights advocate and asylum-seeker, and as another key piece in the patchwork history of American style. Happy birthday, Albert Einstein!
For more information on Albert Einstein's work, life, and legacy, visit alberteinstein.info.
Lucy Sims is the Editorial Coordinator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum (The CJM), where she works to ensure that The Museum's content is as engaging, effective, and error-free as possible. Sims graduated summa cum laude from the University of California, Santa Barbara with a degree in English and religious studies, and is passionate about writing, art, and creative expression of all kinds. She is also a tea enthusiast, music-lover, and proponent of Oxford commas.