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MoMA Asks: Is Fashion Modern?

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday September 27, 2017

This week The Museum of Modern Art opens a fashion show – its first in 70 years. Items: Is Fashion Modern? asks a question whose answer lands squarely in the sensibility of the know-it-all now-ness that is New York City. While Paris has been the capital of couture, New York is the place where some of the past century’s most culture-defining garments have originated, as well as being the home base of the curators who shaped the show.

The curatorial team, headed by Paola Antonelli, started with a list of garments that have changed the world, such as Levi’s 501s; the white T-shirt; the Little Black Dress; biker leathers; the pantsuit; the shift dress—items that have changed the way we live and how we think about ourselves while wearing them.


The team then put each item on their list through the “stereotype test”—and it’s important to re-iterate exactly the conditions of the test in order for visitors to participate in their own selection process. Antonelli says, “Our method for defining a design’s stereotype was subjective but drew on collective consciousness: when you close your eyes and think of a sari or a pair of chinos, what do you see? That is the item’s stereotype.”

For the exhibition, they narrowed the original list of items down to 111, some of which have been projected into the future with newly commissioned pieces that show, in microcosm, how fashions (as design objects, not as trends) evolve. For example, the classic Breton striped shirt by Orgival is shown next to a new variation by Unmade, in which some of the stripes have been released from their geometric prison to become swirling, freestyle motifs amid the remaining blue bars.


The exhibition also demonstrates the democratization of fashion as an industry, in which the most exclusive garments, designed for, and available only to the one percenters, trickle into the global mainstream fast-fashion sphere. Take the Little Black Dress, for example. The first iteration in the show is one by Coco Chanel, from around 1926, made to fit one and only one body. The stereotype, according to myself and many others, however, is the Givenchy sheath worn by Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (which sold at auction in 2006 for over $4K). The additional examples on view, to my eye, are not LBDs; instead of being the kind of thing that can be worn at almost any occasion and acquired within any budget, they are designer party dresses that come at a high price. (MoMA has come up with a hashtag, #itemsMoMA, for visitors to contribute their additions to the show, and here I’m participating in exactly what the curators had in mind.) The photo above shows two contemporary LBDs along with a commissioned version reimagined as a post-mortem coffin dress by Pia Internandi, far right.

Among the most significant contributions to modern fashion have been made by manufacturers of sportswear. The hoodie is represented by a red item by Champion, from the 1980s. On adjacent platforms are, in no particular order: the classic Pategonia fleece pullover (1980s); a Gore-Tex field jacket (1976); Norma Kamali’s Sleeping Bag Coat (1980-1989), the archtypal puffer; Yoji Yamamoto’s active wear and trainers for Addidas (2001 and 2003).

The Space Race was a big influence on fashion during the ‘60s, with examples here by Pierre Cardin in the form of a universally wearable knit tunic (1967) along with a knit jumpsuit for men; and Rudi Gernreich’s trend-setting, uni-sex knit items (above). Moonboots, first designed in 1969, remained an important fashion item well into the 1980s. And I would add André Courrèges’ mini-dresses with geometric cut-outs, in futuristic fabrics.

But there is more. Every type of item that can be worn is included, from sunglasses and bags to nail tips, watches, lapel pins and perfume. Underwear, of course (the Wonder Bra) and swimsuits (Speedos and the bikini); maternity wear; non-Western fashions, including saris, dashikis, cholis, and a burkini; shoes, in every imaginable form and type; and menswear, by Burberry, Woolrich, Yves St. Laurent, Thom Browne, Georgio Armani, Fred Perry, a Guyabera and more.

In addition to the items on mannequins, there are hundreds of video and still images that contribute important context, from issues of power and status to issues of power and protest. The exhibition, which covers fashion items over the last hundred years or so, has a highly contemporary feel, which will make it even more difficult for me to discard a ratty but treasured Gore-Tex jacket.

Items: Is Fashion Modern?  opens on Sunday and continues through the end of January in the spaciously reconfigured 6th floor galleries at The Museum of Modern Art. 11 West 53rd Street, NY, NY Info. All photos: Peggy Roalf

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