Born A Brand In the USA: The Legacy of The Boss and Levi’s Back Pocket Stitch

“Cover me, shut the door and cover me.” Cover Me, music and lyrics by Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen’s 1976 album “Born In the USA,” is known for the riveting title track that launched “The Boss” on a trajectory to sold-out stadium tours and even a Broadway residency. The album is beloved for its canny collection of songs about drifters, rogues, and downbound losers grieving for lost friends and lovers and yearning for their glory days.

“Born In the USA” is also famous for the arresting cover photo by Annie Leibovitz. It features Springsteen shot from behind against the backdrop of a massive Stripes sans Stars, a taut Bruce clad in a Brando-esque T-shirt and blue jeans.

But what brand? If these were Levi’s, you’d know it from the curved back pocket stitching featured on most every style of Levi’s jeans. But here, a red ball cap flaps over the right back pocket, while the faded fabric and bright lighting wash out the left pocket. If you look closely, you can barely see the outline of Levi’s iconic stitch design, two symmetrical arches connected in the middle to form a wide “V.” But who would care enough to try to figure out whether Bruce was wearing Levi’s, Lee, Wrangler, or some other legacy jeans when he moseyed into Annie Leibovitz’s studio that day.

Jeans are jeans. Right?

Not to the companies that make them. Denim companies have used back pocket stitch designs to identify their jeans ever since Levi Strauss began selling jeans to prospectors and cowboys in the 19th century. Levi Strauss took inspiration from the firebrands—graphic symbols ranchers used to mark their livestock. He even placed his stitched “brand” in the same location where ranchers seared their T-Bar or Circle R brands on cattle, the hind quarter.

Since then, Levi’s “arcuate,” as it’s known in the industry, has become a cultural icon. Lee, Wrangler, Calvin Klein, American Eagle, and many others followed Levi’s lead, each creating its own back pocket stitch designs. This is branding “born in the U.S.A.”

Back pocket stitch designs are so important that denim companies zealously protect them. In one recent case, American Eagle sued Walmart for allegedly copying the back pocket stitch from American Eagle’s top-selling women’s jeans. On the eve of the trial, the parties settled, and the court entered a consent judgment recognizing American Eagle’s trademark rights and permanently enjoining Walmart and its supplier from using the accused back pocket stitch.. (Full disclosure, my firm represented American Eagle in this win.)

So, was covering up the “arcuate” on the “Born In the USA” album cover merely an aesthetic choice? Or did Columbia Records’s legal department weigh in, fearing an objection or perhaps more from Levi Strauss & Co.?

Did Bruce cower to brand power?

If so, who’s the real Boss?

Quote of the day: “Trust your neighbor. But brand your cattle.”

Written By
Rob Litowitz