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Denim, Dissonance, and Social Change (Review of FIT’s “Denim” Exhibit)

April 15, 2016

by Eric Darnell Pritchard

Recently I visited the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (“FIT) and took in three of their most recent marvelous exhibits on fashion. All three were spectacular, but the one most exciting for me was “Denim: Fashion’s Frontier.” Just the week after I saw this exhibit I was scheduled to do a series of lectures on fashion and style and activism in a course I teach called “Black Freedom Movement Rhetorics.” One of the lecture was going to focus on denim in order to provide some foundations for an article I’d assigned to my students (more on that later).

The FIT exhibit did not disappoint by any means, and provided lots of great historical context and details about fashion design, marketing, and cultural meanings of denim. All of this proved to be very useful to my lecture and my student’s discussion of the  lecture and readings. What follows are photos and my commentary on the exhibit mixed with notes and additional photographs from my course lecture. It was truly a great exhibit that I highly recommend; one that helped me to seamlessly integrate fashion and style into a history of dress as rhetorical activism as enacted by various social movements, and especially within the Black Freedom Movement.

Among the first looks you see entering the exhibit is of men’s blue brushed cotton denim trousers from about 1840, and a woman’s blue denim jacket from about 1850 which would have been worn for work:

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What this was  helpful in illustrating in my lecture was the ways in which denim was/is often described as a textile gendered masculine, when in reality it was featured in women’s clothing in the 19th century just as it was with men’s clothing. Also, that the denim look here was specifically used as a jacket worn for work also points to the evidence of women working in the 19th century, and in the case of this outfit work that was performed outdoors. This too corrects another point of historical information which are histories that do not acknowledge that women did work at this time, inside and outside of the home. And, as the exhibit pointed out, the women’s look is in an hourglass shape which was in fashion at the time, and so the denim look was functional but also on trend even then. Thus denim was, even in the 19th century, being employed as a textile that was stylish.

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The focus on function and fashion is also evident in the look above, which was a women’s “walking suit” made in striped off white denim from about 1916. It too followed many of the trends of the day, including the skirt length and high-waist on the jacket.This is not the depiction of denim we see in everyday parlance for many decades now.

The idea of denim in people’s minds are those produced by Levi Strauss & Co. (Levi’s) – patented in 1873. This is style that has held reign on the market ever since including many years of cultural references as a symbol of Americana, leisure, and “wild, wild West” Cowboy-masculinities:

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Denim was also associated with clothing housewives for convenience of daily work, such as the iconic 1942 “Popover” dress from designer Claire McCardell:

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And, as all fashion is political, denim’s politicized story is in histories that show it as being worn by off-duty officers in WWII and the symbolic “Rosie the Riveter” which became symbolic for American women’s empowerment in the war years, ymbolic of work, independence, grit, and feminist sensibilities intersecting labor and dress:

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A cultural symbol, however complex, that has lasted. Just ask Beyonce:

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It are these critical moments in our a world visual archive that has helped denim to endure with positive connotations, as has advertising that are now seared in our minds like this ad from the late 1960s:

Levi's Jeans advertisement from late 1960s

Denim became more controversial when, in the 1950s, it was considered disrespectable largely through its association with the teenage spirit of rebellion such as in films like James Dean’s “Rebel Without a Cause.”

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Since this period denim “has been dominated by countercultural and street-style associations.” For example, the 1960s hippies

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or the genius and always chic Jimmie Hendrix himself:

Photos of Life at Woodstock 1969 (1)

 

In the 1970s, Denim goes high fashion, appearing on runways of top designers like Yves Saint Laurent and others who “treated it as a luxury fabric.” And by the 1980s: variations on denim “finishing” techniques like acid-washing (which is back on trend), fading (which never seemed to go away, actually). Also return to roots of how denim was employed as Americana symbol, such as Ralph Lauren’s 1981 “Prairie” collection. Brooke Shields’ Calvin Klein adds were the most visible of the time.

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And by late 1990s it is a luxury item, that we now see being capitalized on everywhere by so-called “premium denim” lines like 7 for All Mankind, Lucky Brand, and fast fashion companies like H&M.

In my course, my students read an article by Dr. Tanisha Ford, a historian and assistant professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The article titled “SNCC Women, Denim, and the Politics of Dress,” is a portion of Dr. Ford’s recent book Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul.

We focused on this history about the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) women and denim as one moment in the history of the Black Freedom Movement wherein Black women civil rights activists wore denim and engaged in other choices around their fashion and beauty that challenged expectations of respectability and propriety circulating within Black communities, including among other activists, at that time. Part of what this enabled them to do is to employ fashion as a tactic of building community with the working class Black people they were organizing in the South. Another was that it demonstrated the intersections of fashion and power as the women acted as agents of adornment toward the ends of social change in their times.

Two of the SNCC women the article discusses were sisters Dorie and Joyce Ladner, pictured here wearing their denim at the March on Washington in 1963:

Sisters Dorie and Joyce Ladner at the March on Washington

The choice to wear denim overalls, Ford shows, was an important aesthetic departure from the “Sunday’s Best” style encouraged by many Black civil rights leaders who were mindful of how Black people and their allies would be (mis)represented in their struggle for civil rights, and denim overalls was not among the sartorial acts that would be seen as acting respectably. Thus, the Ladner sister’s wearing denim to the March on Washington was a radical choice in the midst of an already massive moment for social change.

The prevalence of denim is evident in this iconic photo of writer James Baldwin, Joan Baez, and activist James Forman wearing denim at the voting rights March in Selma in 1965:

James Forman marching with writer James Baldwin and Folk singer Joan Baez

And the ways denim narrativizes some of the oppositional arrangement of fashion choices in the civil rights movements was mirrored back in the recent Ava DuVernay film, Selma as seen in the photo of Tessa Thompson and Common in the film here:

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Overall, Denim: Fashion’s Frontier, historical studies like Ford’s and other works on the history of the textile  correct the historical record that centered radicalized and gendered interpretations that obscure “the variety and breadth of denim’s history” (FIT Museum).  Such interventions demonstrate,  as anthropologists Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward argue in their study about the role of jeans in everyday use quoted in the FIT exhibit description, “Jeans seem to have taken on the role of expressing something about changing the world that no other clothing could achieve.”

I highly recommend checking out the FIT exhibit. Below are additional photos from the FIT exhibit of some of my favorites on display:

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Denim looks from Sacai, Chloe, and Dries van Noten.

 

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An elegant denim dress by Edun.

 

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A Fendi denim “Spy Bag.”

 

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Jean Paul Gaultier, of course.

 

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Sara Shelburne multi-colored striped denim and silk, 1970 in France.

 

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A high fashion trio of denim: looks from Donna Karan, Vivienne Westwood, and Moschino Jeans.

 

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Two piece denim look by Kenzo.

Fashion, News, Runway Review

#NYFW: Derek Lam is Totally My Valentine and…

February 14, 2016

… YES, I confess that I am totally just saying that because I want one of these gorgeous coats he showed in his Fall 2016 collection for New York Fashion Week, I already got a man. As for those extraordinary coats, here are the receipts:

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On the strength of these looks alone Lam’s show was, by far, among my favorite of today (being edged out just a teeny, weeny bit by Public School because their clothes make me think a lot and I’m a fashion nerd).  But to top off these already phenomenal looks, he also gave us this, and this, and that!:

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Slayed. Annnnnd, scene.

 

-edp

Fashion, News, Runway Review

#NYFW Fall ’16: Public School Resists Fashion’s Gender Gazing Problem

February 14, 2016

Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne of Public School have a lot on there plate these days. In addition to designing for the label they have successfully built into a must-see, award winning fashion and style brand, the two also now occupy the helm of the legendary DKNY. In a time when many are lamenting the death of creativity in fashion as a result of designer’s being tasked with too much to do, these two clearly still have steam as we saw in their recent Fall 2016 Menswear collection that slayed the runway, and now their Fall 2016 ready-to-wear collection for NYFW.

What I love about Public School is that, even when fashion sticks to basic notions of gender identity and expression in terms of clothes, and the fashion house does play by those old rules in terms of having a separate menswear and womenswear show (which, to be fair, is actually somewhat recent for their company), the fashion house and the clothes they produce do emerge from an aesthetic that is agender. The payoff of this, besides the obvious gender radicalness of it all, is that they can play with color and texture in their garments, but above all with silhouette’s as the form and function of their designs don’t appear to constrain on the basis of rigid rules of gender identity and expression we find in most mainstream fashion houses and others operating at the top levels as Public School. For this show we see large ponchos, oversized trousers and jeans, and layers that work to conceal rather than convey particular attention to any of the markers much of fashion draws the eye to in an effort to distinguish those features that denote men’s clothes and women’s clothes and rigid notions of what femininity and masculinity are and could be in and through fashion and style. In sum, I appreciate the cerebral nature of what Public School does each season and this collection keeps that going.

Here are some of my favorites from the Fall 2016 ready-to-wear line:

 

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-edp

Fashion, News, Runway Review

#NYFW: Christian Siriano Made us a Believer in Yellow.

February 14, 2016

I’ve said it before, and I’ve said it again. Christian Siriano is one of the best in the evening wear game. The risks he takes with fabrics for evening, his use of color, his imagination that what one could wear for evening could be something more than just a gown but something more edgy and fun are among his strengths and what make his collections one to watch for me.

For Fall 2016, I am most transformed by his use of yellow. Yellow has never been a color I love, but in both his Spring 2016 collection and this latest Fall show, Siriano used yellow in ways that have made be a believer in this “Big Bird” couture. And I mean that in a REALLY< REALLY good way. The yellow wasn’t all the same, some verged on a more pale side, others vibrant, and at least one leaned very chartreuse. All of them, in my eyes, were by far my favorites from the collection and are among my favorite for NYFW so far, and I don’t know what to make of that as yellow usually calls up my shade button. Here are my favorites from among them:

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I also enjoyed what Siriano did with so much knitwear for evening, and some that could also work for day. In addition to the yellow knit pieces above, there was other that really caught my eye:

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Staying true to his strength and signature, Christian Siriano’s gave us so many dresses that gave so much life. Among my favorites and most “RCR” (red carpet ready) were these:

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Fashion, News, Runway Review

#NYFW Fall ’16: Alexander Wang Redefines “Beauty and Taste”

February 14, 2016

The only thing that says f*** the fashion establishment better than sex worker chic, is sex worker chic done through fabrics, separates, and styling that are the status symbols of said establishment. This was the Fall 2016 show of Alexander Wang, unarguably himself part of the fashion establishment, after a meteoric rise from his eponymous label to the head of legendary French house Balenciaga, and back. And so it was fitting that in his first show since leaving his Parisian perch, that Wang would give a collection that remixes those establishment symbols with his own signatures – especially that hardware – to make a clear statement that there was life before and after Balenciaga for him, and that fashion and style has a life that is bigger than the establishment and its symbols.

With this intention, Wang’s collection outfits a couture street fight in which the models looks prepare them for battle with the establishment: studded boots to kick its ass, stockings already ruined with labels emblazoned on them so one doesn’t have to worry about the running while they “fight the power.” Wang did struck me as the kind of thing Hedi Slimane has attempted to do at Yves Saint Laurent since he took over that house, much to the chagrin of many fashion critics, though the YSL customer seems to love it as Slimane’s work brings in lots of coins. Somehow, however, Wang’s approach went down a bit easier than Slimane’s grunge girls and Hollywood pilgrim looks at Saint Laurent. Maybe this supports the overall takeaway from Wang’s Fall 2016 collection: the taste and beauty standards of the industry that the establishment desires is no sustenance for the 21st century fashionista who insists on being and dressing free.

Here are three of my favorite looks from Alexander Wang Fall 2016:

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-edp

Fashion, News, Runway Review

#NYFW16: Tadashi Shoji

February 13, 2016

by Dominique M. Davis

Ready-to-wear inspired by glorious tribal aesthetics, need I say more? Tadashi Shoji’s collection for Fall used triangular and geometric shapes to give way to the silhouette. The use of triangles throughout the collection added an intricate detail to each piece whether it was a part of the design pattern, placed strategically at the waistline to cinch the waist and added the appearance of an hourglass figure and/or used to accentuate the neckline; the use of shapes in this collection was well hewn. A scalloped neck and hemline with floral lace patterns added a creative and whimsical dimension to the structured and controlled design of the geometric clad collection.

Basic colors of ivory, black, pale gold, copper and violet with the use of velvet, lace, chiffon and embroidered sheer fabric brought tribal beautification to 21st century couture. Tadashi definitely slayed this collection and had the models giving me Vogue. Madonna was playing in my mind every time another garment graced the platform.

Here are my favorite pieces:

 

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Fashion, News, Runway Review

#NYFW16: Dion Lee’s “Boyfriend Jacket Dress” and Other Obsessions

February 13, 2016

The overall feel I got from the Dion Lee collection for Fall 2016 New York Fashion Week is edgy sophistication in all of its interdependence. The best example of it is this look I am calling the “boyfriend jacket dress.”

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The cut, the color, the length of it, and the styling with these boots all merges edge and sophistication into one and requires the perfect measures of each to do so effective.

The same is true of this jacket and trousers ensemble. I am loving all the flounce in suits I am seeing on the runway this season.

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And also the volume in outerwear, such as this for which I AM LIVING.

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Finally, I am on a mission to signal the best and most original looking’s takes on the “Little Black Dress” this season. I call it my Andre Leon Talley challenge following his wonderful exhibit and book about LBDS. Here is a Dion Lee dress I think aces the test!

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-edp

 

 

 

 

Fashion, News, Runway Review

#NYFW16: KLS by Kimora Lee Simmons

February 13, 2016

It’s New York Fashion Week, folks. One of our early faves has been the latest collection from entrepreneur, model, and fashion designer, Kimora Lee Simmons. I am OBSESSED with this LBD (Little Black Dress) from the collection. I like it for work AND play. You can leave the office and go right to happy hour in this one.

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And if and LBD is a little to simple for your taste, this frock gives the same effortless chic of an LBD but does so with a color that goes both conservative but still fun, and of course the shoulder cutouts!

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I also like the cut of suit jackets and pants by Kimora Lee Simmons. This one gave me a modern Yves Saint Laurent “Le Smoking” moment …

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And then there was her elegant outwear. It looks gorgeous!

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– edp

Fashion, News, Runway Review

Givenchy: Couture, Spring 2016

January 29, 2016

Riccardo Tisci has never truly disappointed me, but I do have my gripes about the latest haute couture presentation for the legendary fashion house. The first is that it is so few looks, and the second is that the connecting threads were so bare that it was difficult to discern the complete story. I understand that the way couture functions here is as a gesture of things we will likely see come full bloom in the upcoming ready-to-wear shows, but I still wanted just a bit more. That said, the garments are all beautiful and expertly crafted, as always. Here are the three that most slayed, and had me hollerin’ “Yaaaassss! WERRRRRK!”:

 

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– edp

Fashion, News, Runway Review

Yiqing Yin: Couture, Spring 2016

January 29, 2016

Chinese designer Yiqing Yin, a favorite among the haute couture set, presented her first collection as a full member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, this season. And the collection certainly showed us why. I can see each of the following three looks being worn on the red carpet. They certain should inspire a truly stylish celeb to venture away from the usual red carpet fare, and go with a name we don’t here often enough during awards season:

 

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-edp