Most people view denim as the material from which blue jeans are made, but are they aware that denim has been used in everything from early 20th-century leisure clothes to modern couture? A new exhibit at The Museum at FIT, “Denim: Fashion’s Frontier,” demonstrates the many roles denim has historically taken.

Since denim’s arrival in the United States in the mid-19th-century, denim has shown up in various, unexpected designs. The FIT show covers not only key denim pieces and cultural tie-ins like Levi Strauss & Co. 507 jean jacket from the ’50s, patched denim from the ’60s and Fiorucci “Safety” jeans from the ’70, but also lesser-known themes, including its place in industry and couture.

A Comme des Garçons dress, designed by Junya Watanabe and chosen as the main publicity image for the show, encapsulates the concept of denim’s versatility. Emma McClendon, the show’s curator and FIT’s assistant curator, explained that the dress has the silhouette of a nineteenth-century gown but is entirely made out of pre-worn jeans. The denim is draped to form a bodice, using the pants’ seams to mimic boning. The dress represents the fabric’s capability to transform from workwear to high fashion.

The show also features a fashionable women’s walking suit from WWI, which was entirely made out of denim, as well as denim play clothes, which were popular from the 1930s-40s when denim was crucial for beach ensembles and activities like golfing and sailing. There are examples of denim treated as a luxury fabric, including Sara Shelburne’s striped ensemble from the ’70s with a full silk lining, and a pair of Gucci jeans from 1999 with feathers and beading that retailed for $3,800.

The exhibit opens during a time when many designers, trend forecasters and brands are revisiting fashion from the 1970s. McClendon said that she started thinking about curating a denim show while researching Yves St. Laurent’s work during the 1970s. Thorough this research she realized how essential denim was to the decade, “Denim had such a moment in the ’70s— it really became an everyday piece of clothing. It got ingrained into every level of the fashion system, and, throughout my research and reading, denim constantly came up.”

Aside from the various style roles the fabric has taken on, the show touches on denim’s politics. The pieces from the ’90s focus on “sagged” styles, such as those popularized by Tommy Hilfiger, that have since become associated with gang and prison culture. McClendon pointed out that there are still counties in the U.S. that ban sagged jeans and result in fines up to $500.

Denim can also be considered problematic for its environmental effects. A pair of jeans distressed with a laser symbolize the efforts toward sustainability the industry has begun to take. McClendon said, “As much as we all love denim and wear denim, denim is probably one of the most environmentally detrimental factions of the fashion industry with its water waste.” She went on to point out that in addition to water consumption, treatments like sandblasting are highly detrimental to the health of the workers.

Denim’s changing role and the controversy surrounding it are clear throughout the show. McClendon referred to one of her favorite items in the exhibition as a pair of shorts with a photo of Woodstock printed on them, holding an inherent contradiction. “It’s this kind of flagrant example of the hippies themselves becoming co-opted, appropriated by the very fashion industry they’re protesting against,” she said. It is the little conflicts in the exhibit that make the fabric worthy of its own exhibition.


 

“Denim: Fashion’s Frontier” is on display at The Museum of FIT’s Fashion & Textile History Gallery through May 7.