i dream of jeans
In the late 1960′s, as a reaction against mass-produced clothing and vapid consumerism, DIY fashion became a hugely prolific form of self-expression for the youthquake kids. By the early 70′s, this relatively new appreciation for grassroots creativity spread to a more mainstream audience. People from all walks of life began to learn all sorts of once-corny artisanal crafts like crochet, macrame and needlepoint, and using the techniques to create wearable art.
Denim had become an extremely popular canvas for this flourishing hand-made movement and when the folks at Levi Strauss & Co. were alerted to this trend, they decided to capitalize on it. And so, in 1973 they launched the “Levi’s Denim Art Contest” wherein would-be denim designers were encouraged to decorate, embellish, paint, or otherwise customize a pair of jeans or jacket and submit it to the company. Over 2,000 entries were received, all in slide format, and were judged by a panel that included legendary designer, Rudi Gernreich. The masterpieces with the most favorable scores were sent on a museum tour the following year.
Two books were even published about the competition. Levi’s Denim Art Contest Catalogue of Winners (1974) lists the top entries by placement and city of origin and features photos of the pieces in actual slide format, cardboard borders, hand-writing and all, which actually looks quite contemporary in today’s Instagram world.
American Denim: A New Folk Art (1975), which starts off as a history lesson about the handicraft renaissance, is actually a thinly-veiled advertisement for Levi’s, which doesn’t really matter since it’s a brilliant time capsule of 1970′s jeanswear and fashion in general. The winning entries range from tacky to extraordinary to surprisingly wearable today; that feather-sleeved jacket could easily come off a 2012 runway and the embroidered shorts on the cover are very, as Nylon mag may put it, “festival worthy” (before music festivals became the type of corporate entities the counterculture would have shunned…oh the irony).
Then there are the quotes from the designers. Earnest yet entertaining, and often a bit hippie dippy, many echoed the sentiments of Martha Jarosewich of Silver Springs, Maryland, who put it most succinctly: “Eventually, my shorts became my autobiography on denim.”
All images (except the cover of Denim Art Contest) from American Denim: A New Folk Art