Denim: Fashion’s Frontier

Comme des Garçons (Junya Watanabe), dress, repurposed denim, spring 2002, Japan, museum purchase. Photograph by William Palmer.
10 Jan 2016

 The Museum at FIT presents Denim: Fashion’s FrontierDecember 1, 2015 – May 7, 2016, an exhibition that explores the multifaceted history of denim and its relationship with high fashion from the 19th century to the present. Denim features more than 70 objects from the museum’s permanent collection, many of which have never been on view. In addition to the history of jeans, Denim examines a variety of denim garments—from work wear to haute couture—in order to shed new light on how a particular style of woven cotton has come to dominate the clothing industry and the way people dress around the globe.

Because of its durability, denim began as an ideal fabric for work wear— most famously in Levi Strauss & Co.’s clothing for the fortune hunters of the 19th-century California gold rush. Today, denim is one of the world’s most beloved and frequently worn fabrics. It is speculated that on any given day, more than half the world’s population is wearing jeans.

The exhibition starts with an example of Levi Strauss & Co.’s most famous style of jeans—the 501®.  This style of jean continues to dominate the market today.

View of entrance to Denim: Fashion’s Frontier featuring Levi Strauss & Co. 501® jeans.

View of entrance to Denim: Fashion’s Frontier featuring Levi Strauss & Co. 501® jeans. Image courtesy of The Museum at FIT.

The history of denim is chronicled in this museum exhibit from its beginnings with rare pieces of denim work wear from the 19th century.  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 show that denim was not only a menswear fabric.

Installation view of Denim Fashion exhibit

(Left to right) Man’s work pants, circa 1840, women’s work jacket, circa 1850 on view in Denim: Fashion’s Frontier. Image courtesy of The Museum at FIT.

Men’s work pants, denim and brushed cotton, circa 1840, USA,

Men’s work pants, denim and brushed cotton, circa 1840, USA, museum purchase. Photograph courtesy of The Museum at FIT.


By the 20th century, denim was used for a variety of clothing.  Prison garb, naval uniforms and a fashionable women’s walking suit from the 1910s rendered entirely in a striped, white denim is on display in this section.


Walking suit, striped denim, circa 1915, USA,

Walking suit, striped denim, circa 1915, USA, museum purchase. Photograph courtesy of The Museum at FIT.


Jumpsuit, denim, 1942-45

Jumpsuit, denim, 1942-45, USA, gift of David Toser. Photograph courtesy of The Museum at FIT.

museum exhibit denim dress

Claire McCardell, “Popover” dress, denim, 1942, USA, gift of Bessie Susteric for the McCardell Show.
Photograph courtesy of The Museum at FIT.

While visiting this museum you can see two distinct genres of lifestyle clothing 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.


museum exhibit Levi jeans

Levi Strauss & Co., jeans, embroidered denim, circa 1969, USA, gift of Jay Good. Photograph courtesy of The Museum at FIT.

In the 1960s, denim became associated with the hippie counterculture movement. 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.


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 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.


Edun, dress, white and black denim, 2007

Edun, dress, white and black denim, 2007, USA, gift of Edun. Photograph courtesy of The Museum at FIT.

museum exhibit of denim

(Left to right) Marithé + François Girbaud jeans, circa 2010, Rachel Comey ensemble, spring 2015, Ralph Lauren man’s ensemble, spring 2015, rag & bone man’s ensemble, 2015 on view in Denim: Fashion’s Frontier. Image courtesy of The Museum at FIT.


Denim: Fashion’s Frontier is organized by Emma McClendon, assistant curator of costume. It is on view from December 1, 2015 to May 7, 2016.


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Museum Excursion

A lover of all things museum, writing to make your cultural excursions more meaningful.

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