Explore the multifaceted history of denim and its relationship with high fashion from the 19th century to the present.
Blue brushed cotton and denim
USA, circa 1840
These man’s pants are entirely hand-stitched. Principally made from a brushed cotton, they are similar to modern-day corduroy, but they have been patched across the knees and thighs with denim. This use demonstrates that, by the mid-19th century, denim was already prized for its durability. These pants are thus an extremely rare precursor to the modern blue jean, made roughly thirty years before Levi’s® patent in 1873.
USA, circa 1850
Rare pieces of denim work wear such as this woman’s jacket from the 19th century demonstrate denim was not only a menswear fabric. This jacket would have been worn over a woman’s work dress or blouse, most likely while she labored outdoors. Its construction mimics the fashionable hourglass silhouette of the period, with tucks that cinch at the wrists and natural waistline. Denim is typically thought of as a menswear textile, but it was also common in women’s workwear during the 19th century.
USA, circa 1915
With its raised waistline, elongated, tunic-like jacket, and skirt that falls just above the ankles, this suit follows the fashionable silhouette of the 1910 and illustrates the widening applications for denim. Rendered in tough and durable denim, it represents a trend toward more utilitarian fabrics that arose during World War I. As fashion historian Birgit Haase describes, “Simplicity and functionality were the fashion watchwords of the day.”
Blue linen chambray
This workwear ensemble is fabricated from chambray, a close relative of denim. Chambray is created from interwoven white and blue threads (of linen, in this case). Like denim, the warp thread is colored, while the weft thread is white. The ensemble follows the same silhouette as the striped walking suit on view next to it, indicating an interest, at that time, in mimicking fashionable forms in women’s workwear.
Gray denim and linen
USA, circa 1913
The hat, jacket, and pants of this prisoner uniform are entirely made from denim, the use of which was standard throughout the American correctional system for the first half of the 20th century. This uniform belonged to Thomas Mott Osborne, a prison reformer and founder of The Mutual Welfare League (now known as the Osborne Association). He acquired it while posing as a sentenced criminal at Auburn Prison as part of an undercover operation to expose the harsh realities of prison life.
H.D. Lee Mercantile Co. (Lee) jeans
USA, circa 1946
“Lee Riders” were Lee’s answer to the Levi’s 501®. First introduced around 1924 as the “101 Cowboy Pant,” they were renamed “Lee Riders” in 1944. Lee developed a few distinctive elements to distinguish its jeans from the Levi’s® model, such as the “Lazy-S” stitching on the back pockets, and a “U-Shaped Saddle Crotch” (for ease of horse-riding). These features were highlighted in advertisements geared toward the new dude ranch vacationer.
Claire McCardell beach ensemble
This coordinated beach ensemble was created by sportswear designer Claire McCardell, who was known for looks that were sporty, yet chic — with an emphasis on functionality. Within the category of “play clothes,” denim and chambray most often appeared as beachwear. Denim continues to be a popular fabric for summer fashions, largely thanks to the example set during this period.
Brooks Brothers shirt
USA, circa 1940
This pajama-style shirt was meant to be worn loose and untucked. It is ideal for the beach or while vacationing in the countryside. This style of shirt emerged during the 1930s in the new “play clothes” category, and it has remained a feature of “Ivy Style” dressing ever since. The use of denim in this example points to a widening use of the fabric in fashionable menswear.
Levi Strauss & Co. jeans
USA, circa 1969
For the hippie counterculture movement of the 1960s, clothing was a canvas for political expression, and denim was their ubiquitous fabric. The “hippies” and “flower children” would go to thrift stores and flea markets and buy pre-owned clothes, which they would then patch and embroider by hand. The personalized garments functioned as visual statements against the material-driven consumer culture of postwar America. Denim was particularly sought after for its working class connotations, natural cotton fibers, durability, and ease-of-care. The hippies’ hands-on treatment of denim established trends that long outlived the movement, such as bell-bottom jeans, embroidered and patched denim, and faded, pre-worn jeans.
HIPPIE GOES MAINSTREAM
Young Dimensions clogs
USA, circa 1973
The patchwork trend first seen in the jeans of many hippies spread all the way down to footwear. By 1973, denim clogs were a must-have fashion item. One trend report recommended styles that left “the ragged edges on.” This “ragged” look immediately aligned the shoes with the pre-worn, repurposed, hippie aesthetic, despite the fact that they were brand new commercial items.
Tommy Hilfiger ensemble
Black denim, cotton, and nylon
USA, circa 1999
Tommy Hilfiger became widely known during the early 1990s when hip-hop artists such as Raekwon of Wu-Tang Clan and Snoop Doggy Dogg were regularly photographed in his clothes. They often sported oversized “Tommy” or “H” logo T-shirts with Tommy jeans sagged low around their hips. Although the exact origins of the baggy, low worn style remain a topic of debate, “sagged” jeans became heavily associated with prison and gang culture, and remain controversial today.
THE SAG SPREADS
Levi Strauss & Co. “Engineered” jeans, loose-fit model
During the 1990s, Levi’s® unveiled new styles of wide-leg, or “loose fit,” jeans in an attempt to capitalize on the hip-hop market dominated by companies like Tommy Hilfiger and FUBU. Levi’s® continued these styles into the “Engineered” line it unveiled in 1999. As in the style seen here, some of the new models revived the cinch-back strap at the waistband from the early 20th century, which made it easier to sag the pants around the hips.
Calvin Klein jeans
In 1978, Calvin Klein introduced a line of “designer” jeans. Based on the “European” style dominating the denim market at the time, they were high-waisted and extremely tight. They featured a distinctive stitch pattern on the back pockets and a “Calvin Klein” label that branded the jeans as a status symbol. Klein promoted his jeans with overtly sexual advertising campaigns — most famously, those featuring fifteen-year-old Brooke Shields. In a particular commercial, the camera pans up Shields’ Calvin-clad legs, spread wide. Once the camera reaches her face, she stares out an purrs, “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” The commercial was considered so scandalous that it was banned from several television networks in the United States. However, this only helped bolster Calvin Klein sales.
Yves Saint Laurent jacket
France, circa 1970
Yves Saint Laurent began introducing denim looks into his Rive Gauche ready-to-wear line during the late 1960s. He translated many of his signature styles into denim, such as this “safari” jacket, which typically would have been produced in a cotton khaki. Saint Laurent’s fascination with denim was directly connected to his interest in what young people were wearing on the street.
Ralph Lauren ensemble
Blue chambray, wool, and painted leather
Ralph Lauren’s famous 1981 “Prairie” collection played on the romance of the “Old West.” Denim and chambray featured heavily in the looks. Here, Lauren combined a chambray dress with fringed leather gloves, Navajo jewelry, and the oversized silhouette prevalent in early 1980s fashion. To further romanticize his collection, Lauren shot the advertising campaign outside, in overgrown fields, against the background of an open plain.
Sacai (Chitose Abe) ensemble
Blue denim, red velvet, black net, and ribbon
Japan, spring 2015
Today, contemporary designers often incorporate denim through postmodern pastiche and deconstruction, taking apart classic denim garments and putting them back together as historic homages. This approach references the textile’s journey through shifting cultural associations. As Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward suggest, “[J]eans seem to have taken on the role of expressing something about the changing world that no other clothing could achieve.” This is true not only of jeans, but of denim itself, making it a powerful tool within fashion.
Fashion label Sacai is known for a distinctive aesthetic built on complex layering that fuses sporty and feminine styles. Designer Chitose Abe often disassembles recognizable garments of western fashion and reassembles them in fascinating ways. Here, Abe plays with the tradition of the denim vest, shorts, and jean skirt, layering them with more luxurious, feminine fabrics, such as shears and velvets.
The exhibition was accompanied by the book, "Denim: Fashion’s Frontier," written by Emma 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 collecting the breadth of the museum’s denim collection.