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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:

Photo Mar 24, 5 08 45 PM

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.

Photo Mar 24, 5 09 20 PM

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:

vintage-denim-cowboy-coffee-jeep2

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:

rosie-riveter-1

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.”

James-Dean-Style-Rebel-Without-a-Cause

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.

Brief-History-of-Jeans-MainPhoto

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:

Selma-movie-Common-e1420694877667

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:

Photo Mar 24, 5 10 20 PM

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

 

Photo Mar 24, 5 10 54 PM

An elegant denim dress by Edun.

 

Photo Mar 24, 5 17 38 PM

A Fendi denim “Spy Bag.”

 

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Jean Paul Gaultier, of course.

 

Photo Mar 24, 5 18 54 PM

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

 

Photo Mar 24, 5 20 48 PM

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

 

Photo Mar 24, 5 21 21 PM

Two piece denim look by Kenzo.

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

Fashion, History

Madame Mitzvah Bricard: Mysterious Muse of Christian Dior

October 17, 2015

Madame Mitzah Bricard, a muse of legendary couturier Christian Dior whom he described as “one of those rare people whose only reason for living is elegance.” Madame was not playing no games! The Dior fragrance “Mitzah” is named after her and a company make-up line is too. She is said to have inspired the phrase “Miss Dior,” which is the name of another Dior fragrance and phrase that remains with the company and is used even today. Madame Bricard’s background is supposedly shrouded in mystery, with some suggesting she was a courtesan and others a Russian Princess. I don’t think it matters, and am wondering, why not both? Either way she’s every bit as elegant as Monsieur Dior exclaimed.

“When a man wants to send you flowers, say ‘my florist is Cartier'” – Madame Mitzvah Bricard, muse of Christian Dior. DULY NOTED.

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Fashion, Runway Review

Elie Saab: Paris Couture, Fall 2015

October 17, 2015

Elie Saab was, thus far, my favorite runway show at Paris Couture so far. 58 looks and I loved every single one, and all of them ready for the red carpet for awards season! This fantasy of the take no mess, rule breaker Princess was working for me. Especially gorgeous were the #tiara and #crown headpieces work by all the models. Royalty never looked so street chic !

The Elie Saab look in the middle and far right (below) were my favorite of the show.

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Fashion, Runway Review

Chanel: Paris Couture, Fall 2015

October 17, 2015

So ya’ll know I love Chanel. These are my fave looks from the Paris Couture show for Fall 2015. Now honestly, the last couple of collections I have struggled with feeling like things look like beautiful versions of the Chanel signature, but also wanting some innovation in textiles, design, make-up, anything! They always put on a good show in terms of the theme, and this year’s casino theme was equally as fabulous in its execution. But still … I need an element of surprise from them real soon.

WERK!

Solange, the Camera Slayer!

April 23, 2015

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Solo (Solange Knowles) is everything, dear hearts! What else is there to say? I mean, I have barely recovered from the music and fashionS in the “Losing You” video, and then the wedding photos, and know she slays me again?! Here she is at Paris Fashion Week killing the fashion game.

Runway Review

Paris Fashion Week: Isabel Marant (Fall 2015)

April 23, 2015

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So many chic, fierce and smart looks at Isabel Marant during PFW. Here are three of my favorites. As you can see, I love what she did with the short skirts and dresses, and booties and nearly thigh high boots. I think the Marant woman is always one of the most trendsetting. Fantastic!