FIT Presents a Denim Retrospective — From 19th Century Workwear to Runway Collections

The exhibit, "Denim: Fashion’s Frontier," features 75 pieces from the Museum at FIT's permanent collection.
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Chantal Fernandez
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The exhibit, "Denim: Fashion’s Frontier," features 75 pieces from the Museum at FIT's permanent collection.
Junya Watanabe for Comme des Garçons spring 2012 repurposed denim dress. Photo: William Palmer/The Museum at FIT

Junya Watanabe for Comme des Garçons spring 2012 repurposed denim dress. Photo: William Palmer/The Museum at FIT

During his tenure at The Museum at Fashion Institute of Technology in the 1980s, which was then called the Design Laboratory, curator Richard Martin had the foresight to acquire many of the rare historical and contemporary denim pieces now on display in the museum's latest exhibit, "Denim: Fashion’s Frontier," on view in the Fashion & Textile History Gallery until May 7.

"He's really responsible for the wide range of denim pieces we have in the collection," says Emma McClendon, assistant curator of costume at the museum and the organizer of the exhibit. "There was an amazing example again and again of denim from each pivotal period in denim's history all the way up to the 1990s and 2000s and even beyond — we had a number of high fashion pieces as well." The exhibit includes pieces from the 1830s through the present day, and focuses on denim's uniquely American history. 

Men’s denim and brushed cotton work pants, circa 1840. Photo: The Museum at FIT

Men’s denim and brushed cotton work pants, circa 1840. Photo: The Museum at FIT

"[Martin] was incredibly interested in the sociopolitical connotations of fashion and so this show wouldn't be possible without him," she says. "And a number of the pieces, including the Levi's pieces, were actually donated by Richard Martin himself, so he was collecting personally and collecting for the museum. It's really a testament to his legacy." Martin later became curator of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art until his death in 1999.

But Martin wasn't just collecting Levi's 501s — he also valued the historical importance of denim advertising, For example, a limited edition Calvin Klein poster included in the exhibit, featuring a muscular male torso covered only by a wet pair of jeans, was acquired during Martin's era as well. It was shot by Bruce Weber as part of a supplement to the October 1991 issue of Vanity Fair and described by McClendon as a precursor to the infamous Abercrombie & Fitch catalogs of the same decade, where sex took priority over the clothes. Of course, the exhibit also includes Brooke Shields's controversial 1980s Calvin Klein ads on a video screen hung between Studio 54 favorite Fiorucci "Safety" jeans and a pair of equally tight Jordache jeans. 

Denim jumpsuit, circa 1942-45. Photo: The Museum at FIT

Denim jumpsuit, circa 1942-45. Photo: The Museum at FIT

The range of denim in the exhibit is certainly impressive. It begins with 19th century workwear, shown alongside an early 20th century prison uniform, a striped women's "walking suit" and World War 11-era jumpsuits as made famous by "Rosie the Riveter." It continues through the 1950s the 1960s, when hippies claimed denim as part of their movement, and bell-bottoms and embroidered styles became popular. In the 1970s, designers such as Yves Saint Laurent took the fabric mainstream by including it in his Rive Gauche collections. 

Levi Strauss & Co. embroidered jeans, circa 1969. Photo: The Museum at FIT

Levi Strauss & Co. embroidered jeans, circa 1969. Photo: The Museum at FIT

Stone-washing and acid-washing came into fashion in the 1980s, a decade that also saw the arrival of Ralph Lauren's influential 1981 "Prairie" collection — featured in the exhibit via a magazine editorial. In the 1990s, the hip-hop world dominated the trends and "sagged" pants styles designed by Tommy Hilfiger and Claude Sabbah are also featured, including a version of a pair of embroidered American flag jeans that Eminem wore on the cover of Hip Hop Connection in 2000. 

The exhibit concludes with examples of luxury and runway denim design, from a Tom Ford-era Gucci pair of feathered and embroidered jeans to a evening look by Edun. There are also pieces from Hussein Chalayan, Roberto Cavalli, Jean Paul Gaultier, 7 For All Mankind, Acne and Junya Watanabe.

Roberto Cavalli spring 2003 embroidered denim ensemble. Photo: The Museum at FIT

Roberto Cavalli spring 2003 embroidered denim ensemble. Photo: The Museum at FIT

 Since FIT's mandate is to collect fashion and not just clothing of any type, like ceremonial garments or uniforms, the museum has a long history of acquiring culturally important design like denim. "The cultural resonance with denim is always there, people really relate to it but they don't know that much about it," says McClendon. "It was really exciting for us to put on a show that people are able to relate to... I hope [audiences] learn a bit about a garment that they probably all own somewhere in their closet."