By Priya Rao
Updated Dec 01, 2015 @ 5:45 pm
Levi's Denim
Credit: Courtesy of The Museum at FIT

It's hard to imagine a time when denim wasn't the closet staple it is today. Its origins can be traced as far back as 175 years ago—a rich history that The Museum at FIT is exploring in its latest exhibition, "Denim: Fashion's Frontier." Opening today in New York City (until May 7, 2016), the offering explores denim’s roots, from 1840s workwear to more recent influential pieces, such as Tom Ford’s $3,000 designs for Gucci in 1999.

Emma McClendon, the museum's curator, admits denim didn’t really enter a place of high-fashion consciousness until the '70s after the counter-culture movement of the '60s and Woodstock, but it did have its place in the interwar period. “During the '30s and '40s, the connotation of lifestyle clothing really changed because the existence of play clothes came to be, which were outfits for the fashionable man or woman to do leisure activities in," she says. "That's when Lady Levi's first appeared, and when we came to associate denim with cowboys instead of miners from the gold rush."

Today, McClendon expects the leisure element to be revisited as designers experiment more and more with athleisure. “At the events and talks that I go to, designers are really thinking about how to make denim into athletic wear, and using lycra and stretch," she says. "Again, denim is responding to the times and what people want."

But that’s not to say what's old is considered passé. "Right now, people are looking for styles that goes back to the fabric’s heritage roots, like Levi's," she says. "It’s still the most authentic story."