Love Thy Denim

A warm welcome to our new and returning students at WSA.

We thought for our first blog of the academic year, we’d start with something local. Love Thy Denim is currently on at The Gallery, Winchester Discovery Centre.

The exhibition looks at the journey of denim from manual labourer’s work wear to Hollywood and high fashion via its use as a symbol of youth and rebellion.

I didn’t know about the myths and legends about the origin of denim, but it seems there are a few. A couple which stood out to me were the myth of Christopher Columbus using denim for his sails to explore the New World, and that Leob Strauss (who later changed his name to Levi) first took the fabric to America in the 1850s.


The famous Levi ‘red tag’

The exhibition takes you on a timeline of denim fabric, how it has not only survived the decades, but thrived and evolved.

On display at the exhibition are a number of examples of Levi jeans, including a pair of Levi’s 501s, or ‘XX’ as they were originally called. Levi had joined the goldrush miners in California and started making his own line of work overalls, made from denim. They were originally designed for miners and industrial labourers. It wasn’t until he later collaborated with Jacob Davis in 1873, using his unique addition of riveted pockets for extra durability, that their popularity and brand really took off. Levi’s famous ‘red label’ wasn’t introduced until 1936. You can find This is a pair of Levi’s jeans…the official history of the Levi’s brand at 391.09 LEV or borrow the DVD Design Classics: Levi’s 502 Jeans at 745.44942 DES in Library 1.


The exhibition leads you through the decades, how denim has evolved, adapted and has continually remained a staple fabric within the Western society wardrobe. Highlights of this story include the Hollywood cowboy in his jeans in the 1930s, the wartime propaganda poster featuring the iconic Rosie the Riveter as a symbol of hard work, strength and unity, dressed in denim overalls, and the 1950s, when jeans were first being used as casual wear. With film stars such as James Dean and Marlon Brando wearing them, the style became symbolic of rebellion, youth, and sex appeal.

Denim crossed classes and sexes and was no longer seen as simply labourers’ workwear. As well as rebellion and youth it became a symbol of revolution and freedom, of Western decadence. Denim became a fabric of expression, identity, sub-culture and protest. Denim fabric was famously banned in the USSR, and it wasn’t until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 that Eastern European citizens were able to legally purchase Levi’s for the first time.

Customisation and embellishing denim became fashionable, a statement against materialism, giving individuals creative expression and freedom. A piece by Katharine Hamnett can be seen at the exhibition adorned with studs and gems. You can find some fantastic, colourful examples of embellished, painted, and appliqued denim in American Denim: A New Folk Art (1975) – 391.0973 BEA.


Denim made its way from essentially working class uniform to high fashion and there are a number of fashion designers’ pieces on display, such as Maison Margiela’s asymmetrical overall from their Spring/Summer Collection 2009. Known for using found garments and Boro techniques, this one piece uses strips of denim from vintage jeans, going from dark at the top to light at the bottom, creating an ombre effect. Find more of his work in Maison Martin Margiela: Street Special Edition at 392.092 MAR in Library 1.

You can also see a Vivienne Westwood ensemble from her 1991 Cut, Slash & Pull Collection. This is one of my favourites in the exhibition. It’s so edgy and punk, but combined with the soft, tulle effect underneath the jacket, it’s also feminine and delicate. Vivienne Westwood resources can be found at 391.092 WES.

Other designers who feature at the exhibition include Azzedine alaia, Nicole ajimal, moshsin sajid, Hannah Jinkins, and a piece from Gaultier’s 1992 Mad About Photographs Collection, using printing techniques on to denim. Find Gaultier at 391.092 GAU, alongside our other Fashion Designer resources.

The exhibition also includes historical advertising (the infamous Levi launderette advert, starring Nick Kamen, which boosted sales by 800%), artefacts, cotton and indigo information, and a commissioned piece by ISKO, created by Kylie Crompton-Malcombe and Russell Wharton. A stunning court dress inspiration using five weights of denim. I loved the bleaching techniques used on the fabric and the corset bones on the outside of the dress.

If all that blue isn’t enough, check out ‘Blue – No.31’ in our Visionaire Special Collection. The issue is contained in a custom-made, limited-edition, Levi’s turn-of-the-century One-Pocket Sack Coat (in No 2, blue selvedge denim!). That and more denim resources in the library are suggested below:

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The exhibition is one not to miss, including the story about Bing Crosby and Levi’s. It runs until 23rd October, so catch it before it goes. It will then be moving to Gosport Discovery Centre from 29 October until 21 December if you don’t catch it here in Winchester.

*Don’t miss Love Thy Denim lecture: Heritage and Renaissance with Mohsin Sajid on 20th October, 7.30pm. You can book tickets here.

Robynne Willowby, October 2016