The History of Denim Is About More Than Just Jeans

The Museum at FIT takes on fashion’s favorite fabric.

Roberto Cavalli

Die-hard denim fans, prepare to flock to Denim: Fashion’s Frontier, The Museum at FIT’s latest exhibition—but don’t expect a room full of vintage Levi’s (though they have those, too). Organized by the museum’s assistant curator of costume, Emma McClendon, the show explores the history of denim and its transition from workwear to high fashion.

“The inspiration actually came when I was doing research for the Yves Saint Laurent-Halston show we did last year that we focused entirely on the 1970s,” explains McClendon. “And you can’t look at the ’70s without coming across a lot about denim. That’s the moment when the denim industry exploded. What really piqued my interest was that denim was so ubiquitous in early ’70s fashion that Levi Strauss & Co. won a Coty award because they had such a strong influence in what was going on!”

Levi’s are represented in a few different areas of the exhibition, from a customized “hippie” pair from the 1960s to “new vintage” recreations from Japan. “The Japanese denim industry is so important to the contemporary denim moment that it had to be included,” notes McClendon, who acquired pieces from Studio D’Artisan and KAPITAL for the museum while preparing for the show. “That was something we didn’t have in the collection beforehand, but that I knew we had to get.”

All the other usual suspects are represented—classic American ensembles from Claire McCardell and Bonnie Cashin, an embroidered suit by Roberto Cavalli, the oh-so-quotable TV ads from Jordache, Calvin Klein, and Fiorucci—but it’s the lesser known fashions that are likely to delight the cloth’s connoisseurs the most. Pieces by Pinky & Diane, UFO, Sara Shelburne, Landlubber, and Claude Sabbah call for either a nostalgic trip down memory lane or an intensive Google search.

Standout pieces aside (though there are certainly many of those), perhaps the most fascinating thing about the exhibition—and the history of denim it represents—is that it comes full circle. Moving through the show, viewers experience denim workwear at its earliest, wild styles from the ’60s on, and then back to workwear-inspired denim as recent as Fall 2015.

“I find it really interesting that in the ’70s and the ’80s, it was more [about] using denim to create a high fashion look, but now what we see on the runway is designers taking denim’s own history and looking for different style, aesthetics, and building those, putting those together, and coming up with this style that is very reminiscent of the past.”

As Acne Studios founder Jonny Johansson offers on a plaque in the museum: “Five pocket jeans are the Coca Cola of fashion… It’s never in, it’s never out. That’s the beauty of it.”

Denim: Fashion’s Frontier is on view through May 7th, 2016 at The Museum at FIT, 227 West 27th Street.

Photos: The History of Denim Is About More Than Just Jeans

Roberto Cavalli ensemble, embroidered denim, spring 2003, Italy, gift of Roberto Cavalli. Photograph courtesy of The Museum at FIT.

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

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

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

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

Raphael leisure suit, denim, circa 1973, Italy, gift of Chip Tolbert. Photograph courtesy of The Museum at FIT.

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

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

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

Gianfranco Ferré suit, denim-look silk, spring 1999, Italy, gift of Gianfranco Ferré S.p.A. Photograph courtesy of The Museum at FIT.