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Exhibition Review: Items: Is Fashion Modern?

Exhibition Review: Items: Is Fashion Modern?

The Museum of Modern Art, New York (October 1, 2017-January 28, 2018)

MoMA’s Items: Is Fashion Modern? begins with four towering columns of text that list the 111 items that have been deemed “garments that changed the world” by curator Paola Antonelli. [1] These objects form the basis of the exhibition and skew generic and mainstream, setting Items apart from more familiar fashion exhibitions filled with couture and luxury brand names. This is part of the appeal of the show. Freed from the sometimes strict definitions of what is or isn’t fashion in other institutions, Items looks first at the design as opposed to the designer. At MoMA, that isn’t a radical approach, nor is it a radical approach within fashion studies at-large. Somehow, however, it still feels fresh within the context of an exhibition. That said, I was curious about how a curator without a fashion studies background would interpret these items within an institution that hasn’t found the topic engaging enough to revisit since it last considered it in 1944 with Bernard Rudofsky’s Are Clothes Modern?

Part of MoMA’s mission is to foster dialogue between the past and the present. With that in mind, the references to the previous exhibition are appropriate, but not always successful. A series of statues designed by Rudofsky and sculpted by Costantino Nivola satirized the distorted body shapes created by women’s fashionable silhouettes during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (A centauress stands-in for the extreme bustles of the late 1880s for example.) The quartet of sculptures is on display with the addition of a scaled down Tolula plus size dress form, created by Brandon Wen and Laura Zwanziger in 2013. This model represents a more accurate shape of the average American woman today. Although it was set slightly apart from the earlier examples and colored blue instead of white, neither element was different enough to remove this figure from the lineup of visual mockery directed towards the female form. The label text offered helpful information about the research and development of the prototype but failed to provide helpful analysis about this object in relation to the past examples.

The inclusion of this “real body” could have been an opportunity to discuss the positive gains (or lack thereof) in diversifying the fashionable figure today. It was also a missed opportunity to connect how the silhouettes of the past were created via bustles, corsets, and girdles with the selection of Wonderbra and Spanx we currently use. Similarly, the label for the Spanx neglected to mention any historical predecessors or how its design is an improvement on earlier foundation garments.

Thankfully, the scope of the exhibition isn’t limited to revisiting the concepts that Rudofsky previously presented. At the core of Items is the idea of modern design, which is defined in the introduction as a “unity of the arts, working together on society’s needs, aspirations, and priorities.” The text then continues on to explain how fashion includes a realm where “garments created for the benefit of many coexist with those made for the delight of a few.” An excellent assessment, stately beautifully, that explains how a New Era baseball cap (limited-edition MoMA/New York Yankees version available for purchase in the gift shop) can be as notable as a Givenchy dress owned by Jane Holtzer.

What Items does by including mass-produced products is signal to the audience that those familiar objects are also valuable in the story of fashion. Furthermore, because MoMA is interested in the cultural significance of these items, the personal and political stories are also brought into the discussion, as exemplified by the Colin Kaepernick football jersey. These choices speak to an inclusiveness that the majority of fashion exhibitions – and frankly most museums – fail to provide. We find affirmation in seeing ourselves reflected in the world around us. Although Tevas, Fleece pullovers, and Lululemon may be derided and mocked in some fashion circles, they too have a place in MoMA’s narrative. Even if you are one of those people who claim not to participate in fashion, it’s hard to deny it when the clothing you wear is hanging on the wall.

The addition of prototypes and stereotypes in the exhibition suggests that the curator does not trust the core objects to be powerful on their own.

But if we return to the museum’s goals, encouraging “an ever-deeper understanding” of art is a key tenet. In spite of the successful assortment of objects the curatorial team has included, the exhibition falls short in teaching viewers how to look at items differently. Missed connections abound, while the object labels are often devoid of a full explanation or specific analysis of the item on view. The Little Black (Death) Dress – a technology-laden shroud that concluded the set of little black dresses – left me confused and cold. What exactly was the “open-ended dialogue between constancy and change in fashion” that the section label claimed would be provided by this piece in comparison to models by Gabrielle Chanel, Christian Dior, and Versace? I appreciate the introduction to Pia Interlandi’s work but wonder if the impact of how thoughtful design can be effective even after death would be increased without trying to fit it into a story about expensive dresses.

Many other groupings fell flat in similar ways. If you failed to read the text about modesty, rebellion, and emancipation that appeared alongside one grouping, the relationship between an Issey Miyake mock turtleneck, a pair of capri pants and a salwar kameez would be a mystery association game. At every turn, I felt increasingly lost. In some cases, reading labels still made me feel as though I had skipped a sentence or entered a conversation a moment too late, missing out on the key details required to follow the topic. I couldn’t decipher any particular organization visually within the galleries as far as a timeline, types, or display styles. The thematic didactics may have tried to set out a structure, but when terms like “existenzmaximum” are employed to explain the role that sunglasses, hoodies, and a Walkman play in delineating personal space and are tacked on a wall behind a platform, one might as well not have any text at all. Nevertheless, words are there in abundance and intended to provide valuable information. Each object on display represents the stereotype (i.e. the item we think of first for a category) or a prototype that showcases a new approach in some manner. The labels are purported to connect those items with a “historical archetype.” (Or at least that’s what I think they are supposed to supply. I came to this conclusion only after reading the introduction text a dozen or more times.)

Items achieves the most success with the more straightforward selections: the graphic t-shirt, sneakers and blue jeans. With these garments, the design is truly highlighted in both display and interpretation. A label to provide historical context is not necessary because we know them so well; they are the archetypes. Their histories linger in our lives and the particular selections on view add to our extant knowledge. The faded, patched, and repaired Levi’s 501 jeans show how valued they were to the original owner. The spectrum of graphic slogans projected onto the stark simplicity of a white t-shirt reveals how we communicate our beliefs and identity through dress. The addition of prototypes and stereotypes in the exhibition suggests that the curator does not trust the core objects to be powerful on their own. There are items that pull you out of the moment (the Ryohei Kawanishi guayabera prototype) just as often as there are the ones that pull you into one (the Champion hooded sweatshirt). Perhaps this is an area where more experience with the subject matter would have been beneficial. With fashion, a curator must have faith in the objects to express their importance without a gimmick.

The assortment of display treatments also undermines the effectiveness of the objects. Some pieces are on articulated mannequins, many have invisible mounts, and a few are on T-forms. Was this an intentional choice to include or remove a body in an attempt to focus more on the design in some cases? I suspect that because without an in-house collection, MoMA was forced to borrow most of their objects, each with their own particular installation requirements.  I wanted the opportunity to compare the Maura Horton magnet button closures on a button down shirt with Brooks Brothers examples. These finishings, however, were all but impossible to see folded and mounted to the wall behind a deep platform. Just around the corner, four neckties were within spitting distance behind a strip of tape on the floor. The combination of levels and access construed an unintentional hierarchy of importance. My resultant distraction made me aware of how easy it is to take for granted the consistency of display in other exhibitions.

Whether or not every aspect met my own criteria for a successful fashion exhibition, it made me think harder about the subject than most shows I’ve seen.

Reading through the accompanying catalog and online publication yielded more insight into the object selection process and the nuanced discussions that surround the complex ideas these items elicit. With that in mind, Items thus enters the category of fashion exhibitions that work best without physical objects to detract from the big idea. It is an immense challenge to decide what information is most essential to include when discussing and describing an object, much less find a way to express that in a brief label text. However, that is what audiences have been trained to expect in museums so curators must work diligently to hone the content to a core objective in clearly stated language.

This may sound like a scathing review. Yet, the criticism offered here is not to say that I’m completely disappointed in the show, but more to the contrary. Whether or not every aspect met my own criteria for a successful fashion exhibition, it made me think harder about the subject than most shows I’ve seen. The field of fashion studies needs to hear other perspectives that force our community to reconsider our goals, to ask better questions, and to reexamine the standards we’ve failed to see exist in order to maneuver out from underneath outdated practices. Antonelli’s Items adds a new voice to the conversation, one that I respect, and in doing so helps move our field ahead.



[1] Paola Antonelli and Michelle Millar Fisher, ITEMS: Is Fashion Modern? (New York, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2017), 20.

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