Flying motorcycles. Glamour cars. A rock ‘n’ roll circus. Even “The Last Supper.” And, of course, “F–king Fabulous.” Does this season mark the official triumph of Instagram over Insider?
While the fashion crowd mulls that and other pressing questions particular to spring 2018 (naval-gazing as integral to show-going as stilettos and Starbucks), on 53rd Street just off Fifth in Manhattan, one of the city’s great art institutions, MoMA, is putting the finishing touches on its highly anticipated exploration of a more intellectual and existential query: “Items: Is Fashion Modern?”
The question is obviously rhetorical; after all, that second “M” in the acronym doesn’t stand for “Maybe.” Still, one could do a dissertation on the title alone, which implies an all-encompassing evaluation.
Rather, the moniker is a broad-stroke teaser for a tightly focused yet wide-reaching approach to a creative discipline from which MoMA has historically (some might say notoriously) steered clear. The museum has covered fashion as a subject unto its own exactly once before, in Bernard Rudofsky’s seminal 1944 “Are Clothes Modern?” The upcoming exhibit’s title is a clear reference back.
“It’s a declaration of intent. We want to deal with fashion,” says Paola Antonelli, MoMA’s long-tenured senior curator of the department of architecture and design. She developed the show with curatorial assistant Michelle Millar Fisher, aided by a trio of tireless helpers to whom she requested a shout out. (Done: Stepfanie Kramer, Kristina Parsons, Anna Burckhardt.)
“It’s also an attempt to bring the scale from the individual garment to the system. Every single item in the exhibition is a contribution to the [fashion] system and also a way to address the whole system.” Through the “Items” lens, the show thus examines issues du jour such as body image, gender fluidity, technology, sustainability, even death.
If that sounds heady, it is. Particularly so because Antonelli and her staff had no tidy definition from which to work — not that the issue didn’t come up. “This is so difficult, even for fashion people,” she says. “They give you maybe poetic but not very satisfying definitions.” Antonelli notes that she’s not a fashion expert but brought together a panel of such types to consult on the exhibit.
In a sense, Antonelli proceeded more or less from the old Supreme Court standard for pornography — you know it when you see it. She then stuck closely to her starting point — the “Items,” 111 in all, represented variously by single or multiple examples.
While the show examines each item in the context of today’s culture — a tall order — it doesn’t attempt universality. It does not address the passion of fashion, or its emotion, at least at that most visceral level of desire — I want it because I want it, because it moves me in some way. It doesn’t delve into recent cultural controversies, whether the life-and-death matter of unsafe manufacturing or, at least directly, the volatile issue of cultural appropriation, though there may be some reaction to inclusion of items such as the sari, cheongsam or hijab within the “fashion” construct.
“I’m very careful when [an item] is something outside of [the mainstream] culture,” Antonelli says. “When I talk about something like a hijab or doorknockers [hoop earrings], I triple, quadruple, quintuple check the way I present [my ideas]. I’m quite sure that there will be some pushback on some of the items, but hopefully it will be a fruitful pushback which will take into account our great respect and depth of research.”
Nor does the show examine or judge fashion at its most visually extravagant, indulgent or silly. “I love indulgence, I love ornamentation. It was not just the show that I was doing. This is a show about the garments that had a strong impact on the world at a systemic scale,” Antonelli explains, while opening a window into the practical world of the museum curator. “You need to know what you’re doing. You need a strong idea, and you need to pursue it. The strong idea in this case was not to pursue the spectacle, but rather to pursue this kind of steady presence in and influence on the world.”
To that end, in this age of celebrity, the creator takes an interesting back seat to the creation. While there’s necessary acknowledgment of some of the greatest names of fashion — Chanel, Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Rei Kawakubo among them — Antonelli keeps her primary focus on the what rather than the who.
As an expert in functional design, Antonelli long thought fashion should have a place at MoMA. When she arrived there more than 20 years ago, she asked Philip Johnson, then still a vital presence, about the museum’s post-Rudofsky disinterest. He cited fashion’s “ephemerality” as antithetical to the core precepts of MoMA, a viewpoint Antonelli found “disingenuous” given the iconic architect’s own of-the-moment work. She thus pondered what a legitimate role for fashion at MoMA would look like, one that wouldn’t overlap with the Met’s Costume Institute, the Brooklyn Museum (which has since given its fashion holdings to the Met), or FIT. “I believe the museums are a network, and that we should not repeat what others are doing. It doesn’t make sense and it’s a waste of energy,” she says.
Her fashion vision for the museum: Not a full-fledged collection, but one focused on “garments from the holistic viewpoint of design, thinking about materials, thinking about the whole life cycle from the beginning to the end, to recycling, reusing, upcycling. This is what we can contribute to the whole discussion.”
With that premise in mind, Antonelli started a list of “garments that changed the world” and which she thought would make sense for the museum’s permanent collection — 501s, Converse sneakers, baseball cap. She actually acquired a few. The white cotton T-shirt debuted at MoMA in the 2004 show “Humble Masterpieces” alongside the Post-It Note and paperclip. It’s now the anchor visual for “Items” on the museum’s web site. At some point, MoMA director Glenn Lowry found out about the list and inquired about something Antonelli hadn’t considered on her own: Did it contain the makings of a show? A few years of tireless research and planning later, presto!
The culmination of that process opens with a party on September 26th, to museum members the following day and to the public on October 1. If the result is half as compelling as Antonelli’s conversation, it will fascinate across MoMA’s diverse visitor demographic — fashion obsessives, pop culture geeks, sociologists, academics and rank-and-file museumgoers, probably all of whom will find some iteration of a beloved item in their own wardrobes elevated to MoMA-worthy consideration.
The show opens on a study of the Little Black Dress, with a 1926 Chanel and 2014 Rick Owens bracketing a lineup of 10 including looks from Scaasi, Mugler, Versace and a 3-D printed version by Nervous System, a Cambridge-based tech design studio. Another piece was designed for the exhibit by Melbourne-based Pia Interlandi, who works with the dyeing to design their burial attire. “The ultimate Little Black Dress,” Antonelli says.
Interlandi’s piece is among the numerous “prototypes” Antonelli commissioned. Each starts with an existing item and moves it forward in reaction, she says, to “advances in technology or in culture and sociology or even, very simply, in the way people perceive themselves in the world.” Another example: the Moon Boot-inspired “Mars Boot,” designed by Liz Ciokajlo. Whereas the original was fashioned from synthetic materials, “Now, we’re thinking of a different future so [the Mars Boot] is all about organic materials,” Antonelli explains. “It recycles humidity.”
The show occupies the museum’s entire sixth floor, The Steven and Alexandra Cohen Center for Special Exhibitions, its various themes arranged in adjacencies variously casual and purposeful. Not far from the LBD is that which could be considered its antithesis, a piece from Kawakubo’s “Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body” (the lumpy-bumpy collection, spring 1997). That in turn is positioned near Fifties maternity clothes, both signifying “bodies that either can change or will change or have changed completely. it’s important to put them together.”
Throughout, there are “mundane but really revolutionary objects.” In some cases, the brand name resonates – Spanx, Wonderbra, Levi’s, Speedo. In others, the generic item reigns. In the case of the white T, Antonelli chose Hanes as most representative of the genre.
A section on rebellion contains items as diverse as a Vivienne Westwood kilt and a Calvin Klein slipdress; in one on emancipation of the body, bikini and burkini coexist. A focus on messaging features items that communicate personal information specifically yet very differently: engagement ring, Birkin bag, graphic T. “Existence maximum” features what Antonelli refers to as “small objects of introversion that make your metaphysical space larger” — Sony Walkman, baseball cap, surgical mask (worn regularly on the street across Asia) and the hoodie, “a very charged object, as we know.”
Not surprisingly, shoes figure prominently: ballet flats (including a surprise find by Claire McCardell), clogs, an array of platforms, Martin Margiela’s clove-footed Tabis, iconic sneakers — the Converse All Stars as well as Nike’s Air Force 1 and the Adidas Super Star, the latter housed in the technology area because of its innovative toe shell.
In developing her list, Antonelli took a big-picture view, inclusive of beauty. Sunscreen and lip gloss made it into the show, as did YSL’s Touche Éclat. Asked if recognition of cosmetic contouring was a nod to the Kardashian-ization of fashion, Antonelli says no, but once members of her team made the connection, she tried and failed to gets rights to a Kardashian photo for the catalogue. She thus stuck to her original point of reference, Carole Lombard.
Fragrance, too, is represented, in the uniform section. “Certain perfumes” the curator suggests, “are like uniforms. Chanel No. 5 is almost like wearing a pencil skirt and a pearl necklace.”
Yet there’s no Chanel jacket, which Antonelli deemed “important but a little too rarefied.” Yet she welcomes disagreement on that item — and others. To that end, there’s a hashtag set up which she hopes will encourage divergent opinions; #itemsMoMA. The whole point of the show is not agreement, but engagement. She wants showgoers to engage at whatever their particular level of interest, whether deep-thoughts types or those like the old ladies she would observe years ago, experiencing the joy or recognition in seeing a retro toaster in a vitrine: “Oh, I used to have that!”
“That’s the power of design,” Antonelli offers. “You can have a very personal and intimate investment in the exhibition.”
“Items” closes with a section on power, “soft power, hard power and changing interpretations of power.” Here, Donna Karan’s famed Easy Pieces find a home, as do numerous iterations of men’s suits — Zoot, Armani, Savile Row, Yohji, Thom Browne.
Along the way, whether intentionally or otherwise, Antonelli hits on an issue of major resonance in fashion today: Casualization. She recalls an exchange with Lowry as he reviewed the exhibit’s scale model. Perusing the final section, the two mused on the suit’s status evolution from one-time essential marker of elite professional status.
“’Now, if you wear a suit, they don’t think you’re the boss, they think you’re the help. The boss wears a white T-shirt,’” Antonelli recalls Lowry’s quip. “The exhibition,” she adds, “ends with a white T-shirt.”
Is fashion modern? Indeed it is. And these days, plenty complicated.