In the early 20th century, Greensboro, North Carolina was a literal denim city. Workers from Cone Denim’s White Oak Mill lived in company-built villages that included shopping centers, schools and churches, and on Thanksgiving Day they could expect turkeys to feed their family. It is this sense of community that “Denim at the Depot” curator Evan Morrison felt was important to commemorate with a pop-up exhibit, open through Sept. 26, documenting the history of denim in Greensboro.
Morrison said that American denim can be viewed like a Cadillac: “While [these jeans] are not necessarily flashy or ostentatious, they have set the standard for the premier in their field,” he said.
At one time, both Cone and Wrangler owned multiple plants in Greensboro, along with a Galey & Lord mill. Now the city holds only the White Oak Mill and a research and development center for Wrangler. Morrison says there is a need for a document of the past. He had been trying for three years to create a textile and manufacturing museum or exhibit to celebrate the city’s heritage. Finally, he was approached by the city to create a temporary exhibition—an opportunity to physically demonstrate what he was suggesting.
The show is set up in the old waiting area of the historic J. Douglas Galyon Depot and integrates apparel, archival items and photographs. Highlights of the exhibit include a pair of post-1935 Cone Deeptone overalls, with a lot of patchwork, mended areas and striations from wear, and a go-kart model of the Wrangler Jeans Machine driven by Dale Earnhardt Sr. The exhibit also features an interactive photo opportunity with vintage aprons and chore coats and an enlarged photograph of an old factory, allowing visitors to photograph their own recreations.
Vintage denim is not just a side interest of Morrison’s—he was born in Greensboro with family who worked in the denim industry, and he owns Hudson’s Hill, a store that focuses on premium workwear and made in USA items. Of the garments on display, 85 percent come from his personal collection. In addition, items were borrowed from the Wrangler archives, and some pieces were donated from families or private collectors.
Morrison is hoping the exhibit finds a home after the pop-up show closes. He will be meeting with city officials and some interested organizations to discuss making the display permanent. In the future, Morrison says he imagines that the exhibit will widen its focus to incorporate more about life in the mill village.