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A Fashion Exhibit That Raises More Questions Than It Answers

'Denim: Fashion's Frontier' at The Museum at FIT doesn't fully unravel the mysteries behind jeans, but it's nonetheless informative and entertaining

Nearly half the world's population wears jeans on any given day, according to anthropologists Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward. Denim is a common material accessible to and appropriate for everyone, from ranch hands to runway models. It comes as a surprise, then, when Emma McClendon, curator of The Museum at FIT's latest show Denim: Fashion's Frontier, discusses just how much about the material is still unknown.

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"A lot of mysteries surround denim," she told Racked on the exhibit's opening day. "The textile is so old and so ingrained in our culture that there are many stories circulating. It's hard to pinpoint how things started in the first place."


From left: Men's work pants, circa 1840; Denim jumpsuit, 1942-45; Comme des Garçons repurposed denim dress, spring 2002 (photograph by William Palmer). All images courtesy of The Museum at FIT

McClendon suggests two different theories about the origin of the material. The first is that it came from Nîmes in southern France, and it received its name as "de Nîmes" turned into "denim." The second theory is that it was actually an English textile that was just given a French name to create a certain cachet. Many researchers, McClendon says, have asked why denim is typically blue, without arriving at a definitive answer.

For the exhibition, McClendon organized more than 70 objects from the museum's permanent collection, which date from the 19th century to the present. Denim from high and low culture and everything in between are represented: A mannequin wearing a denim prison suit stares across one of the galleries at another in Yves Saint Laurent. A hippie skirt and other denim relics of the counterculture movement stand next to a Rosie the Riveter-type outfit.  Levi Strauss & Co. jeans feature prominently, and some of the high-fashion designers include Gianfranco Ferré, Roberto Cavalli, and Junya Watanabe of Comme des Garçons.

"The textile is so old and so ingrained in our culture that there are many stories circulating. It's hard to pinpoint how things started in the first place."

The story of denim, McClendon continues, can also be seen as a story about the American textile industry. At first, almost all denim was made in the US, but by the 1980s, production was outsourced overseas. "There is that underlying story about American craftsmanship and how it changes," she says. "We see companies like Cone Mills [the New York-based denim supplier] going back and trying to revitalize home grown production and natural indigo dye."

Also on view are some of the advertisements used to market denim throughout history. A video plays the famous Calvin Klein commercial from the 1980s in which a 15-year-old (!) Brooke Shields says breathily, "You wanna know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing."

The "sex sells" theme continues with a framed Calvin Klein advertisement that displays a wet, nude male torso — the man's buff arm holds a pair of jeans over his crotch. Bruce Weber photographed this image, as well as others, for a special supplement of a 1991 Vanity Fair issue. The images anticipate the campaigns of such companies as Abercrombie & Fitch, whose advertisements featured naked bodies more prominently than the clothes themselves.

A head-to-toe denim street style look Photo: Driely S for Racked

Denim style at NYFW spring 2016.

Photo: Driely S.

So, after curating this show, where does McClendon see the future of denim? There are many possibilities: "At the moment, the majority relies on vintage inspiration. They're constantly looking back. I'd love to see new, more sustainable methods of production, an embrace of higher quality, lower quantity, and new technology. We're seeing some interesting things coming out of Levi's in addition to Google and Jacquard's project. I'd like to see people feel comfortable enough to branch away from the five-pocket model."

With Denim: Fashion's Frontier, open through May 7th, McClendon and the museum have created a portrait of a material that's complex and mysterious, rife with cultural connotations, and still a ubiquitous material for people worldwide. Two outfits not on view, nor mentioned anywhere in the Museum at FIT exhibition: the Britney Spears/Justin Timberlake ensemble at the 2001 American Music Awards. Some moments in denim may be best left on the Internet.

Museum at FIT

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