The History of Blue Jeans at Centraal Museum

The Dutch currently own more pairs of jeans per capita than any other country, a fact that might explain why the Centraal Museum in Utrecht spearheaded Blue Jeans, an enthusiastic and expansive investigation into the past 350 years of denim history. We're talking everything from the Levi's that the 19th century San Francisco miners wore to modern pairs from Martin Margiela and Yves Saint Laurent. Your Dutch-made G-Star jeans might be new, but denim is much older than you might think, dating back to the 17th century with the denim skirt featured prominently in the painting Woman Begging with Two Children by an anonymous artist jokingly dubbed "The Master of the Blue Jeans."


By the early 20th century denim trousers had become popular with coal miners, construction workers, and other members of the working class, and it wasn't until the 1950s that they were elevated to icon status (see: Dean, James). But the exhibition doesn't just explore the past. You'll find sustainably produced denim from Dutch brands like Kuyichi and YOUASME, as well as a few of the bizarre creations from Montreal-based Naked & Famous, including glow-in-the-dark jeans, raspberry scratch-n-sniff denim, and the heaviest pair of jeans in the world, capable of standing upright without support.

G+N's appropriately named gluejeans uses colorful glue to bind the seams instead of traditional stitching, while Marithé + François Girbaud treat their jeans with lasers and ozone, which supposedly uses less chemicals and water than traditional finishing. Dutch designer Koen Tossijn has even moved his workshop, Atelier Tossijn, into the Centraal Museum, where he fashions custom-made jeans with the attention normally paid to expensive suits.

Denim has reached new heights as purely a material for larger works of art, as seen in several pieces by Dutch artists Carmen Freudenthal and Elle Verhage. Blue Jeans also dedicates much of its space to street style. Artists in Tokyo, Nairobi, and Amsterdam practice their candid photography by shooting denim in its natural habitat.

So just how ubiquitous has denim become? On display is a photograph of Ronald Reagan on a 1981 cover of TIME. His outfit? The Texas Tuxedo: a denim shirt worn with a pair of blue jeans. When everyone from blue-collar workers to models to conservative politicians are wearing the same material (or designing their own lines á la Glen Beck's new 1791 brand), it's not crazy to think that blue jeans could live on for another 350 years.

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—Keith Wagstaff is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Follow him @kwagstaff.

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Images courtesy Centraal Museum
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