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How Globalization Shaped ’90s Denim—For Good and Bad

The 1990s have the unique distinction of closing out a century and a millennium, and its fashion is a window into the psyche of a pivotal time in history.

“The ’90s was a really dynamic time period, and many of us who lived in the ’90s at any age, think nostalgically about fashion from that era,” said Colleen Hill, The Museum at FIT curator.

The decade is explored in The Museum at FIT’s next exhibit “Reinvention and Restlessness: Fashion in the Nineties” beginning Jan. 19. The show will display more than 85 garments and accessories that connect 1990s fashion to pop-culture moments and the aesthetics that flourished during the decade.

The exhibit is also an opportunity for the museum to show some of its new acquisitions, including a Vivienne Westwood corset with a printed Boucher painting from the 18th century, which was acquired from a secondhand dealer.

“It’s really the first time that [Westwood] printed an artwork onto an item of fashion and it’s an idea that she continued throughout the 1990s, just before a number of celebrities started wearing corset bodices, which made it much more of a kind of icon fashion,” Hill said of the Regencycore ‘It’ item.

Another exhibition-worthy item is a donated Martin Margiela skirt that was paired on the runway with one of the designer’s famous dressmaker bodices that already existed in the museum’s collection.

“Those are the type of acquisitions that make you start thinking about exhibitions based on certain themes, and in this case, we were getting a lot of great stuff from the ’90s,” Hill said.

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Denim is part of the story, but not the “teenage” brands and trends that Gen Z is tirelessly working to cop now, Hill said. Nor is music’s influence on the decade of fashion heavily explored. That will come later in an exhibition focused on hip-hop’s impact on fashion.

Rather, the exhibit folds denim pieces into the narratives that formed during the decade. A custom denim jacket by Harlem-based designer Beau McCall is featured in the exhibition’s “Global Wardrobe” section dedicated to the ’90s globalization. As with most of McCall’s work, the jacket is intricately adorned with buttons in the color of the Pan-African flag.

“Designers have always been inspired by other cultures, but they were increasingly making clothing that was based on this interconnected global world,” she said. “With the uptick in technology, the world became smaller and other cultures became accessible.”

While this shift was exciting, Hill pointed out that it also resulted in a lot of unchecked cultural appropriation. Case in point: a pair of Spring 1999 Gucci jeans by Tom Ford, who is widely credited with reviving the essentially bankrupt legacy brand in the early ’90s.

The heavily embellished jeans, which purportedly referenced hippie fashion and protest fashion from the ’60s and ’70s, sold for $3,900 in 1999—which Hill estimates is $6,000-$7,000 today.

The women’s jeans sold out before they even hit stores. “These jeans were quite famous, even in their day, and they’re still well-known,” she said.

While the jeans are an example of how the luxury market began to add money-making denim collections to their empires in the ’90s, Hill said these jeans in particular “look very much like the bead and feather work associated with indigenous peoples in the Americas and African people.”

“That’s the kind of topic that doesn’t come up in the ’90s, but…we see the references very clearly now,” she said.

“Reinvention and Restlessness: Fashion in the Nineties” runs through April 22 and is accompanied by a book of the same title, published by Rizzoli Electa and available at major booksellers. Written by Hill, the publication also includes essays by curator and writer Shonagh Marshall, MFIT deputy director Patricia Mears, and MFIT director and chief curator Valerie Steele.