Jeans have a long history in fashion, but they weren’t always seen as trendy or even an acceptable article of clothing to wear as a respectable member of society. Originally, denim was used in outfits made for working-class people, which is evidenced in 17th-century paintings from Northern Italy. So how did jeans become so mainstream and even fashionable? London-based artist Ian Berry attributes this to style icons over the last century. In an aptly titled series—Denim Legends—the artist explores who these fashion-forward figures are and even plainly asks, Who is your Denim Legend?
“A denim legend for me personally,” Berry tells My Modern Met, “is someone who by wearing denim—or by wearing it a different way—made a movement for many thousands and millions to ‘copy.’ It’s hard for many of us to imagine a time when jeans were not the go-to item in their wardrobe, but people like James Dean, Marlon Brando, Elvis Presley, and Marilyn Monroe, by wearing it, set off a spark that meant we all would today. That is quite something.”
As a sturdy material, denim proved to be the preferred textile for hard laborers—such as farmhands and railway workers—but as Berry says, people like James Dean in the 1950s changed the narrative of the material. He turned jeans into a fashion statement. Wearing jeans was now equated with “being cool” or even a “bad boy.” By the 1970s, bellbottom jeans were all the rage; in the 80s, denim was a staple of the punk and hip hop revolutions; and in the 90s, ripped jeans led the grunge aesthetic.
“There may be many people today known for wearing jeans, or for having a specific denim look,” Berry elaborates. “While they may inspire some people to copy them, the majority were already wearing jeans. Yeah, they can be legends and perhaps time may judge them as such, but I’m interested in the people that made this rural workwear the material of the urban street.”
For Denim Legends, Berry is presenting approximately 60 portraits made entirely of denim. Each creation is an expertly crafted amalgamation of various denim hues, resulting in a realistic—albeit blue filtered—depiction of a pop culture denim influencer. Berry is unveiling each piece, one by one, and even asking the public for its input. The final icon will be determined by a democratic process—aka online voting. The only catch is that he’s taken four icons out of the running because they are “obvious and always documented”—Dean, Brando, Monroe, and Elvis—and he’s seeking to get a wider range of names.
If you have a denim legend—or a few icons—in mind, you can submit your selection(s) via this online form. The series will continue to be unveiled online, but the public will also be able to see Denim Legends in person. The series will be featured as part of Berry’s Material World exhibit at Textil Museet in Sweden opening October 23, 2021 and running through May 1, 2022.
If you’d like to learn more about Berry’s creative process and the way he transforms denim, take a listen to his episode on the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast.