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Denim: Fashion’s Frontier

Start Date 01 December 2015
End Date 07 May 2016
Venue The Museum at FIT
Location New York, USA
Curator Emma McClendon

Denim: Fashion’s Frontier explored the multifaceted history of denim and its relationship with high fashion from the 19th century to the present. The exhibition featured 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 examined 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 opened with an example of Levi Strauss & Co.’s most famous style of jeans—the 501®—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 began 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 demonstrated 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 were on view in the exhibition. Also on view in this section was 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 illustrated 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 were 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 was an haute couture blouse by Elsa Schiaparelli that imitated the look of denim. The blouse was 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 was 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 included 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 were 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 was 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 was 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 included 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, was 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 was demonstrated with pieces from Studio D’Artisan and KAPITAL. These highlighted 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 looked at how contemporary designers experiment with denim as a vehicle for postmodern pastiche and deconstruction. Ensembles included 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 were newly acquired by The Museum at FIT from recent collections. Among these looks were 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 was organized by Emma McClendon, assistant curator of costume. 

The exhibition was accompanied by the book, Denim: Fashion’s Frontier, written by McClendon, with a foreword by MFIT senior curator Fred Dennis. The book offered a more in-depth exploration of the themes addressed in the exhibition and highlighted the legacy of The Museum at FIT’s former director Richard Martin, who was in large part responsible for the breadth of the museum’s denim collection.