An iconic NYC museum is entering the fashion game: The Museum of Modern Art is returning to the world of style for the first time since 1944 with Items: Is Fashion Modern?, a comprehensive exhibition that puts our everyday wardrobe in the spotlight.
Items brings together 111 clothing garments and accessories, featuring everything from the baseball cap and graphic t-shirt to the sari and Kente cloth. The exhibition uses its collection of items to illustrate the role that fashion plays in our everyday lives, whether that’s giving us power, modesty, or a sense of identity. It also doesn’t shy away from fashion’s political and societal influences, taking on questions of cultural appropriation and the political forces that have shaped many of our well-worn garments.
“A powerful form of creative and personal expression that can be approached from multiple angles of study, fashion is unquestionably also a form of design, with its pitch struck in negotiations between form and function, means and goals, automated technologies and craftsmanship, standardization and customation, universality and self-expression,” Senior Curator, Department of Architecture and Design, Paola Antonelli said in a statement.
“As design, [fashion] exists in the service of others. In most cases, it is designed by a human being to dress others—sometimes many, many others—so that they can function in the world, in different arenas,” Antonelli continued.
To depict these iconic garments, the exhibition goes between stereotype and variety; some items, such as the white t-shirt, are simply depicted with a single garment emblematic of the item’s best-known form, while others, like the suit and little black dress, are showcased through a wide range of pieces. Though many of the pieces are examples of existing traditional garments, others are prototypes that put a futuristic and practical spin on the exhibition’s chosen fashion items, showing what potential future purpose they can hold. Pantyhose designed by Lucy Jones, for instance, has been made with a wheelchair user in mind, while a trench coat designed by Anne van Galen imagines a climate change-ravaged future where endless rainfall puts new demands on our outerwear.
So: Is fashion modern? Though the exhibition’s title is a reference to the museum’s last fashion exhibition in 1944, entitled “Are Clothes Modern?”, the 2017 exhibition makes the case both for fashion’s cutting-edge possibilities and enduring nods to the past. Though many of the pieces on display are distinctly contemporary, the exhibition is strewn with in-depth explanations of each clothing item that reveal their fascinating origins and historic uses, including how capri pants came to signify a “liberated woman” and the evolving role of jeans, from the uniform of California’s 19th century laborers to a symbol of 60s modernity.
These thorough explanations make Items an exhibition that’s best enjoyed at a slower pace. Though the exhibition does have a few arresting visuals, including Richard Nicoll’s lighted Optic Slip Dress and the bright red A-POC Queen textile generated from a single thread by Issey Miyake and Dal Fujiwara, those looking for the immediately striking visuals of The Met’s fashion exhibitions won’t find that here; Items instead gives its much of its spotlight to the ordinary garments we might not otherwise give a second glance. Rather, the exhibition’s power lies in its ability to contextualize these everyday pieces and display them through a new lens, offering new insights through the exhibition’s thoughtful descriptions that feel like a crash course in fashion history.
With 100+ items to get through, Items is an exhaustive exhibition that, while laid out clearly with plenty of space in the museum’s newly-expanded 6th floor gallery, requires patience and time to appreciate to its full extent. Those who put in the effort, however, can expect to see the items in their closet in a whole new light.
Items: Is Fashion Modern? is on display at MoMA through January 28. For more information, visit MoMA.org.