ALL POSTS Culture Style

Denim: Fashion’s Frontier Opens at The Museum at FIT

Comme de Garcons denim dress from FITComme des Garçons (Junya Watanabe) dress, repurposed denim, Spring 2002, Japan,
museum purchase.
Photograph: William Palmer.


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

Once the uniform of gold prospectors and laborers, denim has become the go-to workday and weekend getup for most everyone. Anthropologist Danny Miller estimated that about half the world’s population—including countries as diverse as Turkey, India and Brazil—wears dungarees on any given day. Even the runways the last two seasons have swelled with oceans of indigo.

Just as denim is having yet another moment, The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology is opening an exhibit (beginning December 1) examining the fabric’s place in fashion history. With over 70 denim constructions from the museum’s collection, Denim: Fashion’s Frontier takes a long (almost two centuries) look at the ways and reasons jeans have wooed the world. Featuring denim jumpsuits worn in factories during World War II and Tom Ford’s notoriously expensive plumed pair for Gucci, Denim shows how this is truly the fabric of our diverse lives.

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

Claire McCardell, “Popover” dress, denim, 1942, USA, gift of Bessie Susteric for the McCardell Show. Photograph courtesy of The Museum at FIT.Beginning with 1830s workwear that predates Levi Strauss & Co., FIT’s exhibit shows how a glorification of the American West and Hollywood’s bad boys introduced millions to the appeal of the fabric’s durability and comfort. As the workingman’s pants evolved to become a staple of the casual wardrobe during World War II, denim began to surface in women’s fashion. In the ’50s, denim’s association with rebels resurfaced, and the jean jacket entered popular culture. Naturally the countercultural movements of the ’60s and ’70s embraced the fabric for its relaxed, democratic qualities, and so subsequently did haute couture designers like Yves Saint Laurent. The ’80s saw the emergence of designer denim in labels like Fiorucci and Calvin Klein. Signature washes and dyes also became prevalent.

In addition, FIT acquired several denim pieces from the 2014 and 2015 collections of Dries van Noten, rag & bone and Chloé, bringing the exhibit up to the present.

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

—Britt Olson