The Museum of Modern Art in New York is hosting its first fashion exhibit in more than 70 years, showcasing 111 garments that have made an impact on history — from the white T-shirt to the little black dress.
On the top of the list? The 501® blue jean, of course. The 501® jean transformed the world as a garment that is at once universal, worn by people everywhere, and unique, conforming to each wearer given the nature of denim and how indigo fades or rubs off.
To find the perfect pair to include in Items: Is Fashion Modern?, curator Paola Antonelli stopped by the Levi Strauss & Co. Archives last fall. During her visit, I gave Paola an in-depth look at our earliest pair of 501® jeans — the XX (1879) — as well as other early finds like our Spur Bites (1890), worn by a cowboy.
Settling on the best 501® to display took some consideration. In addition to my discussion with Paola, MoMA curatorial staff spent several days reviewing garments in our digital tool, the Virtual Vault. Rather than including the earliest 501® waist overalls from our Archives, we settled on a post-World War II pair from 1947. This pant captures the modern blue jean — belt loops, five pockets and a straight fit without a back cinch or crotch rivet. It also has distinctive wear patterns, from the cuffed hem marks to patching on the back seat. They’re a can’t-miss feature of the exhibit.
But it’s not just our Levi’s® blue jeans on display at MoMA. You’ll also find a pair of our Dockers® khakis, identified simply as “chinos.” The pants are displayed in a wall case next to a modern commission — one of the new creations developed by select designers, engineers and manufacturers to play off some of the exhibit items with pioneering materials, approaches and techniques.
As the brand that launched the business casual movement, the Dockers® display includes an image from our A Guide to Casual Businesswear, an early 1990s publication LS&Co. included in 25,000 kits distributed to Human Resources departments across the country. The booklet offered employees a look at relaxed yet appropriate workwear, kicking off the casual Friday movement.
To supplement the exhibition, MoMA’s education staff videotaped sessions at the Plaza for their free online course, Fashion as Design. As part of the module covering the lifecycle of clothing (week 5 in the syllabus), students can watch me explain the details and stories behind three historical jeans in our Archives. Other LS&Co. segments explore a meeting of the Levi’s® Wellthread™ design team, which investigates how to produce clothing more sustainably, and a session on the future of denim, both featuring Paul Dillinger, VP of Innovation.
MoMA’s Items exhibition is the latest acknowledgement of the historical impact of the 501® jean. In 1964, the Smithsonian Institution added a pair to its permanent collection, while Time magazine named the 501® the fashion item of the 20th century. In addition, Items formally recognizes the historical influence of Dockers® on modern corporate dress.
If you’re in New York, stop by MoMA and look for our 501® jeans and Dockers® khakis in the Items: Is Fashion Modern? exhibit, which runs through January 28, 2018.
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