Denim: Fashion’s Frontier
Fashion & Textile History Gallery, The Museum at The Fashion Institute of Technology
December 1, 2015 – May 7, 2016
All photography © Copyright 2015 The Museum at FIT
Denim has long been one of the world’s most beloved fabrics. Your jeans do more than cover your body. They hold you. They support and comfort, they remind you that you are girded for the struggle. They take your measure and keep your faith. Jeans mold to you and become yours alone. If you eat too much, they tell you. Denim is a sturdy cotton warp-faced twill textile in which the weft passes under two or more warp threads. This twill weaving produces the familiar diagonal ribbing of the denim that distinguishes it from cotton duck (a linen canvas). After being made into an article of clothing, most denim articles are washed to make them softer and to reduce or eliminate shrinkage (which could cause the article to not fit properly after its owner washes it). In addition to being washed, “washed denim” is sometimes artificially distressed to produce a “worn” look. Much of the appeal of artificially distressed denim is that it resembles dry denim which has faded. In jeans made from dry denim, such fading is affected by the body of the person who wears them and by the activities of his or her daily life. This process creates what many enthusiasts feel to be a more “natural” look than the look of artificially distressed denim.
According to anthropologist Daniel Miller, “On any given day, nearly half the world’s population is in jeans.” The cultural significance of this has yet to be fully determined.
Denim: Fashion’s Frontier will explore the dynamic history of denim and its relationship with high fashion from the 19th century to the present. The exhibition, presented by The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, (Seventh Avenue at 27 Street, New York City 10001-5992) will trace denim from its origins in work wear of the 19th century, through its role as a symbol of counterculture rebellion in America, to its acceptance into mainstream culture. It will culminate with the arrival of blue jeans as luxury items during the late 20th century, and denim’s subsequent deconstruction by contemporary designers through postmodern pastiche and experimentation.
In 1853, a Bavarian immigrant named Levi Strauss, an astute merchant in San Francisco, responded to the gold-rush need for tough miner’s clothes. He had his stock of brown cotton tent canvas run up as plain trousers, no belt loops and no back pockets. A cinch belt in the back kept them up. Scrabbling among too many rocks and too little gold, crawling along shafts, wrestling timber supports and balky dray mules, Strauss’s “overalls” lasted. They were cheap and they felt good.
Strauss switched to denim (from Serge de Nimes, a twill made in southern France) and had it dyed in reliable, uniform indigo. By the 1860s, Levi Strauss‘s blue pants were daily wear for miners and farmers and cattlemen throughout the West. In 1873 he bought, for $69—the price of the patent application — an idea from a Russian immigrant tailor in Reno for making miner’s pants stronger by riveting the critical seams. They were nicknamed jeans after the city of Genoa, where sailors wore blue cotton canvas.
By 1880 the Levi was full-blown, with orange stitching (including the trademark “arcuate” design across the back pockets, once the functional anchor for pocket lining), bar tacking, rivets, watch pocket and the “Two Horse” leather patch. Lot numbers are assigned to products and, for the 01-weight denim used, the “waist-high overalls” are called 501s. It’s true; more so than most of the thin ghosts we call up for our heritage, Levi’s are rooted in the real stuff.
Henry David Lee was another kind of merchant. He started out in Ohio selling kerosene and moved west to Salina, Kansas, with a small bundle of venture capital. The H. D. Lee Mercantile Company sold fancy canned goods and offered a line of Eastern work clothes. When shortages and shipping didn’t suit Henry David, he set up his own garment works, producing overalls, jackets and dungarees. Dungarees refer specifically to cotton drill pants without bib fronts, and generally to the rough blue cotton cloth named for the dyer’s section of Bombay—Dungri—where it originated. Lee’s chauffeur probably came up with the Lee Union-All, a denim coverall that became the uniform of mechanics and other workers in grimy environments. Later, it evolved into the flight suit.
In the 1920s, about the time Lee was introducing the first zipper fly, Levi Strauss was deleting the crotch rivet. Chafed horsemen had pressed the company for years to remove it, but it took a fly-fishing trip by the chairman of the board to do so. As he crouched near a campfire listening to a story, that central copper rivet heated up nicely. The chairman bolted upright—and the rivet went. Later, with the universal acceptance of jeans, the back-pocket rivets that scratched school desks, dining room chairs, saddles and car fenders became extinct.
Alongside this chronology, Denim: Fashion’s Frontier will highlight important points of engagement between high fashion and denim that are often left out of typical denim histories. Themes addressed will include the role of advertising in creating popular mythologies, as well as issues of distressing, connoisseurship, and environmental concerns. The goal will be to shed new light on one of the world’s most popular types of clothing, and to explore how a particular style of woven cotton has come to dominate the clothing industry.
The exhibition opens with an example of Levi Strauss & Co.’s most famous style of jeans—the 501XX—positioning its importance as the original template for the five-pocket, riveted jean that continues to dominate the market today.
The exhibition’s historic chronology begins with rare pieces of denim work wear from the 19th century, including a pair of work pants from the 1830s-40s that predate Levi Strauss & Co.’s jeans production and a woman’s work jacket from the late 19th century, which demonstrates that denim was not only a menswear fabric.
By the start of the 20th century, denim was regularly used for a variety of clothing, from prison garb to naval uniforms, both of which are on view in the exhibition. Also on view in this section is a fashionable women’s walking suit from the 1910s rendered entirely in a striped, white denim. Cut in accordance with the fashionable silhouette of the time, the ensemble illustrates the widening applications for denim.
During the interwar years, two distinct genres of lifestyle clothing emerged that shifted denim’s cultural associations: “Western wear” (which emerged alongside the popularity of dude ranch vacations) and “play clothes” (which were designed to outfit fashionable men and women while engaging in an array of new leisure activities, such as tennis and days at the beach). Examples from both of these categories are on view, including a pair of “Lee Riders” from the 1940s and a woman’s denim play ensemble from the 1930s. Also on view from this period is an haute couture blouse by Elsa Schiaparelli that imitates the look of denim. The blouse is accentuated with pearl essence buttons to play on the tradition of western wear rodeo shirts.
With the onset of World War II, women went to work as part of the war effort when men left for the front. The all-in-one denim jumpsuit—an example of which is on view—became the unofficial uniform of these female factory workers, personified in the figure of “Rosie the Riveter.”
Simultaneously, a new market emerged for practical-yet-fashionable clothing that affluent women could wear while tending to their own households, a need that arose in the wake of housekeepers defecting to work for the war effort. Claire McCardell was the first to capitalize on this new demand in 1942 with her denim “Pop Over” dress.
As World War II came to a close, a new influence shaped the cultural view of denim in 1950s America: the biker gang. Jeans became the center of controversy, and there was a general public outcry against denim as a symbol (and even the cause) of teenage unrest. Examples of denim garments from this time include a Levi Strauss & Co. 507 denim jacket.
To combat fears of juvenile delinquency, a group of denim mills and manufacturers banded together to found The Denim Council in 1955. The Special Collections of FIT’s Gladys Marcus Library contains the papers of The Denim Council, which include press clippings, reports, and cartoons. Examples of these on display in the exhibition shed new light on denim’s rapid rise in popularity during this period.
In the 1960s, denim became closely associated with the hippie counterculture movement. Within the movement, denim was important for its working class connotations and as a comment on the growing materialism of postwar American culture. The hippies’ particular use of denim established certain trends, such as bellbottom jeans, embroidered denim, and patched denim. Examples of these different styles are on view.
By the early 1970s, the counterculture movement had crossed into the mainstream, taking denim with it. A prime example of this transition is a pair of denim shorts printed with a photograph of the crowd at the 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair. The print transforms the hippies themselves into a decorative motif, in essence making them a commodity of the consumerist industry they were protesting against. At the same time, denim began appearing in the work of major fashion designers, such as Yves Saint Laurent. A denim safari jacket by Saint Laurent from this period is shown alongside a denim leisure suit by American designer John Weitz.
European companies, such as Fiorucci, started a cultural craze for Italian and French jeans in the late 1970s. These jeans were defined by their sexy fit and were often so tight that wearers were forced to lie down in order to zip them up. Examples of Fiorucci’s signature “Safety Jeans” represent this trend. Also on view in this section is a pair of the original Calvin Klein Jeans—often heralded as the first “designer” jeans—which were immortalized by Brooke Shields in the company’s controversial 1980 commercials.
During the 1980s, the practice of “finishing” denim with different techniques, such as stonewashing and acid-washing, became standard across the industry. The innovation of stonewashing is often linked to French duo Marithé & François Girbaud. An example of their work is juxtaposed with jeans from another important 1980s brand: Guess. This section of the exhibition also includes a selection of designer experiments with denim from the 1980s, including a look from Ralph Lauren’s “Prairie” collection of 1981.
The influence of hip-hop on denim is explored in a group of ensembles from Tommy Hilfiger, Claude Sabbah, and Levi Strauss & Co. from the 1990s. By the end of this decade, denim had emerged as a true luxury item. A pair of elaborately feathered jeans by Tom Ford for Gucci, which made headlines in 1999 for their astronomical price tag of $3,000, are situated alongside other luxury denim looks by designers Roberto Cavalli, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Gianfranco Ferré, all of whom helped establish denim as a high-fashion fixture at the start of the 2000s.
The importance of the Japanese denim industry is demonstrated with pieces from Studio D’Artisan and KAPITAL. These highlight the interest in “authentic” reproduction and vintage details that has spurred the growth of the Japanese denim industry over the last 30 years.
The final section of garments looks at how contemporary designers experiment with denim as a vehicle for postmodern pastiche and deconstruction. Ensembles include a dramatic evening gown by Junya Watanabe, entirely constructed from pre-worn jeans, and pieces from eco-brand EDUN and artist Susan Cianciolo.
Between 2014 and 2015, denim saw a dramatic resurgence on runways around the world. A number of garments in the exhibition have been newly acquired by The Museum at FIT from the most recent collections. Among these looks are women’s wear from Dries Van Noten, Chloë, and Sacaï, as well as menswear pieces from Ralph Lauren and Rag & Bone.
Denim: Fashion’s Frontier is organized by Emma McClendon, assistant curator of costume.
The exhibition will be accompanied by a book, also titled Denim: Fashion’s Frontier, written by McClendon, with a foreword by MFIT senior curator Fred Dennis. The book will offer a more in-depth exploration of the themes addressed in the exhibition and will highlight the legacy of The Museum at FIT’s former director Richard Martin, who is in large part responsible for the breadth of the museum’s denim collection.