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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, History

Rewind, 1970-1999: A (Bill) Blass from the Past

November 12, 2015

by Eric Darnell Pritchard (photo credit: Richard Avedon)

“Red is the ultimate cure for sadness.” – Bill Blass

“When in doubt wear red.” – Bill Blass

The proof is Lauren Hutton, photographed by the iconic Richard Avedon, wearing a gorgeous Bill Blass red handkerchief dress in georgette, a dress that is timeless, elegant, and indeed for any style ennui (that’s french for boredom!) we may be suffering now or ever.

This month, fashion wunderkind Chris Benz’s long awaited debut has creative director of legendary American fashion brand Bill Blass finally came true. And from the looks posted in stories in the fashion press, and the items currently available for purchase on the company’s site, Benz, did not disappoint. I’ve already eyed a piece I will be buying as a gift for a friend.

Blass, the son of a dressmaker mother and a salesman father, had been obsessed with style and designing his entire life. Indeed, the double-B logo for what would become his company emerged from sketches he had done from as early has his pre-teens. In 1970, after working in fashion since 1959 and eventually becoming the head designer of the fashion house Maurice Rentner, Blass purchased that brand and renamed it Bill Blass Limited, formally establishing a brand that would go on to great success for the next three decades until Blass’s retirement in 1999. Following his retirement, several designers were installed as the head of Bill Blass Limited and charged to keep the fashion brand’s legacy going starting with Steven Slowik (who was Blass’s choice to succeed him), Lars Nilsson,  Michael Vollbrecht, and finally Peter Som (a former assistant to Blass). Blass passed away from cancer on June 12, 2002, and  Som’s leadership would be the last big attempt at keeping Bill Blass Limited alive until, in October 2014, when it was announced that Benz would be the creative lead of a relaunch of Bill Blass, the latest chapter in a story of returns for a fashion house that once epitomized the ideal of American sportswear. This chapter, however, looks to be the perfect combination: Blass’ chic, attainable glamorous Americana aesthetic, and Benz’s irreverent, sophisticated, and whimsical approach to design.

With the roll out relaunching Bill Blass underway, it is both imperative and impossible not to take a brief, though glorious trip down memory lane with some of the best in the company’s history under its founder’s creative leadership.

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Blass in his element

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Blass also designed menswear his career, his own personal style is a glimpse at that part of his career.

 

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Get into the sofa pillow with the Bill Blass logo on the sofa. Blass had a fondness for interior decoration, and his impeccable taste was also evident in his Connecticut estate.

 

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Socialite, designer and Anderson Cooper’s mama, Gloria Vanderbilt, wearing a giraffe print Bill Blass tunic and pants in the 1970s

 

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A beautiful Bill Bass turtleneck dress, and also a beautiful model with the most glorious afro. I live!

 

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It’s time to play “Name that fashion decade …”

 

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Chris Benz at work for Bill Blass today. Good luck, Mr. Benz and so far, so good. We’ll be watching.