Denim: Fashion's Frontier

Explore the multifaceted history of denim and its relationship with high fashion from the 19th century to the present.

Detail of beach ensemble (1960) by Bonnie CashinThe Museum at FIT


Denim: Fashion’s Frontier, a 2015-16 Museum at FIT exhibition, explored the multifaceted history of denim and its relationship with high fashion from the 19th century to the present. The exhibition featured more than 70 objects from the museum’s permanent collection, many of which have never been on view. In addition to the history of jeans, Denim examined a variety of denim garments — from work wear to haute couture — in order to shed new light on how a particular style of woven cotton has come to dominate the clothing industry and the way people dress around the globe.

“507” model jacket Detail of “507” model jacketThe Museum at FIT


Denim is a warp-faced, twill textile woven from cotton threads. The warp threads are dyed blue, and, because of denim’s weave structure, they appear most prominently on the top of the fabric. The weft threads are left white and appear on its reverse side. The blue threads are traditionally dyed with indigo through a procedure known as “rope dying” (also called “chain dying”). In this process, groups of threads are passed through vats of indigo dye and are then drawn up into the air (a step known as “skying”). To achieve a rich, deep blue, the dye must be built up in multiple coats. There are many different kinds of denim today — it comes in multiple colors, weights, and some versions have incorporated stretch fibers into the weave. One type of denim that has become increasingly discussed in the fashion industry is “selvedge” denim. Selvedge denim is woven on shuttle looms that can only produce fabric in widths of roughly 29 inches. Most of these looms in use today date to the 1940s or earlier. Selvedge denim is distinctive for the strip of white threads that run down each edge of the fabric.

Levi Strauss & Co. "501" jeans Levi Strauss & Co. "501" jeansThe Museum at FIT


Levi Strauss & Co.’s 501® model is widely considered to be the “original” blue jean. First dubbed lot 501® in 1890, the style was originally patented in 1873. Levi’s® denim trousers were distinctive for the copper rivets included at different stress points to increase the garment’s durability. Now a mainstay of jeans around the world, the specific placement of these rivets has not changed in more than 150 years (except for a distinctive “crotch” rivet that featured on the original 501®, which was removed during World War II due to rationing). Interestingly, the original 501® model had four pockets instead of the classic five (it only had one back pocket). It also had a cinch-back strap across the center back of the waistband, which allowed the wearer to adjust the fit. This was a particularly important feature during the nineteenth century, when the style was worn much looser, often over the wearer’s day clothes as protective layer during hard labor.   

Man's trousers Detail of trousersThe Museum at FIT


Because of its durability, denim began as an ideal fabric for work wear — most famously in Levi Strauss & Co.’s clothing for the fortune hunters of the 19th-century California gold rush. By the start of the 20th century, denim was regularly used for a variety of clothing, from prison garb to naval uniforms. Today, denim is one of the world’s most beloved and frequently worn fabrics. It is speculated that on any given day, more than half the world’s population is wearing jeans.

Man's trousers Front of trousersThe Museum at FIT


Man’s trousers
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.

Denim: Fashion's Frontier | Circa 1840 pantsThe Museum at FIT

Woman's jacket (c. 1850)The Museum at FIT


Blue denim
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.

Walking Suit (c. 1916)The Museum at FIT


Striped denim
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.”

Work ensemble (1912-1915)The Museum at FIT


Blue linen chambray
Canada, 1912-1915

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.

Prisoner uniform (1913)The Museum at FIT


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.

Denim: Fashion's Frontier Installation View Denim: Fashion's Frontier Installation ViewThe Museum at FIT


Two distinct genres of lifestyle clothing helped link denim to the romance of the Old West and the American spirit: “Western wear” emerged parallel to the booming popularity of “cowboy” films and dude ranch vacationing, while “play clothes” were designed to outfit fashionable men and women who engaged in leisure activities.

“Lee Riders” jeans Detail and back of "Lee Riders" jeansThe Museum at FIT


H.D. Lee Mercantile Co. (Lee) jeans
Blue denim
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.

Beach ensemble (1945) by Claire McCardellThe Museum at FIT


Claire McCardell beach ensemble
Blue chambray
USA, 1945

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.

Man's shirt (c. 1940)The Museum at FIT


Brooks Brothers shirt
Blue denim
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.

Man's shorts (c. 1969)The Museum at FIT


As the American middle class settled into suburbia during the 1950s, denim suddenly became controversial. The influence of films like 1955’s "Rebel Without a Cause" (and the jeans worn in the movie by James Dean) caused denim to be equated with teenage rebellion and delinquency. The denim industry worked to counteract these negative connotations — by founding The Denim Council, for example — but from the 1950s on, denim’s cultural identity has been dominated by countercultural and street-style associations.

Denim: Fashion's Frontier Installation View Denim: Fashion's Frontier Installation ViewThe Museum at FIT


During the 1950s, denim became linked to rebels, bikers, and juvenile delinquents. This was largely thanks to films such as "The Wild One," starring Marlon Brando. As menswear expert Bruce Boyer observes, “Brando’s denim jeans and black leather jacket identified him as a challenger of society as much as his sneer of insolence.” Due to this association, jeans were banned from many school districts as a symbol — even a cause — of teenage unrest.

Detail of man's jeans (c. 1969) by Linda SimpsonThe Museum at FIT


Levi Strauss & Co. jeans
Hand-embroidered denim
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.

Clogs (c. 1973)The Museum at FIT


Young Dimensions clogs
Blue denim
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.

Denim: Fashion's Frontier Installation View Denim: Fashion's Frontier Installation ViewThe Museum at FIT


The influence of hip-hop on denim was explored in the exhibition with a group of ensembles from Tommy Hilfiger, Claude Sabbah, and Levi Strauss & Co. from the 1990s.

Front of man's ensemble (1999) by Tommy HilfigerThe Museum at FIT


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.

Jeans (2000)The Museum at FIT


Levi Strauss & Co. “Engineered” jeans, loose-fit model
Blue denim
USA, 2000

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.

"Spy" bag (Spring 2007) by Silvia Venturini FendiThe Museum at FIT


Fashion designers began experimenting with denim during the 1970s, but by the end of the 20th century, denim had emerged as a true luxury item. In the exhibition, a pair of elaborately feathered jeans by Tom Ford for Gucci’s spring 1999 collection (which retailed for over $3,000) were situated alongside other luxury denim looks by designers Roberto Cavalli, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Fendi who helped establish denim as a high-fashion fixture at the start of the 2000s.

Jeans (1979) by Calvin KleinThe Museum at FIT


Calvin Klein jeans
Blue denim
USA, 1979

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.

Jacket (c. 1970) by Yves Saint LaurentThe Museum at FIT


Yves Saint Laurent jacket
Blue denim
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.

"Prairie" ensemble (1981) by Ralph LaurenThe Museum at FIT


Ralph Lauren ensemble
Blue chambray, wool, and painted leather
USA, 1981

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 ensemble Back and front of Sacai ensembleThe Museum at FIT


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.

Credits: Story

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.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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