MOMA Makes a List of Iconic Fashion “Items”

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There are no Vogue covers at the entrance to the Museum of Modern
Art’s first fashion exhibition since 1944. No mannequins, no ball gowns.
Items: Is Fashion Modern?” begins instead with a list and a slide show. The list calls out all hundred and eleven items in the show, chosen by
the curators Paola Antonelli and Michelle Millar Fisher for their
archetypal qualities. When Antonelli travelled to India and Bangladesh,
for example, she asked people, “What is the stereotypical sari? The one
that you think of when you close your eyes?” The slide show is a
compendium of photos and images the curatorial team drew from social
media, showing tracksuits, power suits, Union suits, and bathing suits
in their natural settings, out there in our world. “The moment you see a
list, you want to make your own,” Antonelli told me. “We want you to
say, ‘This exhibition is about me.’ ”

She’s right. My list centers not on the objects of fantasy—Jane Birkin’s
Birkin bag, red-soled Louboutin stilettos, Issey Miyake’s D.I.Y. A-POC dress—but on the Items that I have owned, most of which cost less than a hundred dollars.

I chart my lurching attempts at personal style through the chunky Irish
sweater my aunt brought me from the Aran Islands (Item 005), the Chucks
(Item 028, Converse All Stars, c. 1950, from the Converse archive) I
added in middle school, the plaid Swatch (Item 096) I bought in Italy as
a teen, my nineteen-nineties move toward grunge in the form of a stretch
miniskirt and Dr. Martens (Item 035), a trip to India embodied by a
shalwar kameez (Item 079). I accepted my (not) Tiffany Engagement Ring
(Item 031) wearing a knockoff of Norma Kamali’s Sleeping-Bag Coat (Item

My first book was about Marimekko (Shift Dress, Item 083); I carried my
first baby in an updated Snugli (Item 087). My new fall sneakers are
Adidas Superstars (Item 003), a slip-on version that owes much to the
stretchy experiments of Miyake and his countrywoman Rei Kawakubo.
Kawakubo, whose 2017 retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s
Costume Institute
just closed, is represented here by her lumps-and-bumps Comme des Garçons collection from 1997, “Body Meets
Dress, Dress Meets Body,” best known in its gingham incarnations.

Because “Items” focusses mostly on types, not dream clothes, everyday
women’s concerns and how women actually get dressed are placed front and
center. There’s a dramatically lit opening vignette of little black
dresses, to be sure, but turn ninety degrees and there’s the Wonderbra;
turn forty-five degrees and there’s maternity wear. We are far from the
fantasy and production values on display at the Costume Institute. The
look and tone of the MOMA show
are clinical, cool—even when the items are up-to-the-minute hot: a Colin Kaepernick jersey or a Dapper Dan jacket from the nineties, as appropriated by a recent Gucci runway.

Kawakubo and Donna Karan are two of the (not many) designers who get a
showcase moment. Whereas Kawakubo’s dresses seem to be a release from
the tyranny of flattering clothes—their built-in protuberances slyly
comment both on the history of fashions like bustles and panniers and on
present-day add-ons like fanny packs—Karan’s 1985 collection, aimed at
the professional woman, was meant to flatter us all. “These
interchangeable pieces form an entire wardrobe,” Karan declared of her
base bodysuit, over which blazer, pants, skirt, shawl, and big metal
accessories could be layered. “They pack. They travel. They dress up.
They dress down. The whole point is to simplify your life so you can get
on to what really matters.” In the show’s catalogue, the research
assistant Stephanie Kramer ties Karan’s revolutionary collection to the
history in America of clothing designed by women, for women, including
Claire McCardell’s Second World War-era Popover dress and Sandra
Garratt’s Multiples, from the nineteen-eighties, which were patterned
knit pieces designed to be “one size fits most.”

I’d extend the idea to the present-day revival of the capsule-wardrobe
concept, in which women challenge themselves to pare their closets down
to just thirty pieces—an idea that shows just how outdated the question
mark in the exhibit’s subtitle, “Is Fashion Modern?,” truly is.
Industrial production, minimalism, uniforms, plastics—all the
intellectual and physical materials of MOMA’s other design collections
have long been brought to bear on clothes. It is fashion’s
identification with constant change and with women that put it, for too
long, out of the official museum story.

It is easy to see how Antonelli’s previous design exhibitions inform
this study of fashion: the white T-shirt entered MOMA’s design
collection as part of her “Humble Masterpieces: Everyday Marvels of
Design,” in 2004, when M&M’s and Post-it notes got museum lighting.
Antonelli’s enthusiasm for science (as previously seen in “Design and
the Elastic Mind,” in 2008) is on full display in a series of objects
commissioned for this exhibit, which explore the frontiers of technology
and clothes. The groovy Moon Boot gets an update as the Mars Boot,
developed by the designer Liz Ciokajlo to be grown from mycelium and the
wearer’s own sweat en route to the red planet. The Bret.on project, by
the clothing-on-demand startup Unmade, lets you mess with the Breton
shirt’s signature stripes on a touch screen, swirling them into a stormy
sea that you might one day be able to order as a custom pullover. The
displays that present variations of a single type—such as a shift dress
that morphs from preppy Lilly Pulitzer, to counter-cultural paper, to
sexy chain mail—are more successful in visualizing the places a garment
can go.

A hooded sweatshirt by Champion, from the 1980s.

Photograph by Vincent Tullo / NYT via Redux

Other screens show movie clips, vintage ads, how-to videos, and more of
the research that went into the exhaustive catalogue. Yet the exhibition
lacks a bridge between the research and the objects, a middle ground in
the information-delivery system. I’m not a fan of waiting for the
content to be served, or reading long exhibition labels. Exhibits need
to create a compact tableau of word, image, and object to make their
point. Otherwise, visitors may glance at the red Hoodie (Item 050)
enshrined as if on an altar, chuckle, and not get that it is there in
part because of Trayvon Martin. The clean presentation style pushes the
complications down into the tiny text at your feet.

Men are not an afterthought in the exhibit, though their clothing first
appears in female form: Yves Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking, from 1966, a
suit tailored for women, worn with a ruffle-collar blouse, was paired
with Rudi Gernreich’s Unisex Project. In 1970, Gernreich, the creator of
the monokini, was asked by Helen Blagden, an editor at LIFE magazine, to visualize what we would all be wearing in 1980. His response,
forwarded to the year 2000, was a pair of identical ribbed, turtlenecked
leotards, to be worn with waterproof boots. “Since animals which now
supply wool, fur and leathers will be so rare that they must be
protected, and weaving fabric such as cotton will be too much trouble,
most clothes will be made entirely of cheap and synthetic knits,” he
declared. Aside from the Snugli, “Items” doesn’t delve into the world of
children, but here’s a place where it might have: for nineteen-seventies
kids, unisex doubleknits were part of everyday life, even if their adult
minders stuck to gendered fashion. “Items” points to present-day
designers such as Hood by Air and Yohji Yamamoto as continuing Gernreich’s project. For small fry,
gender lines seem ever more tightly policed. (Other garments I’d put on
my list of “Items” for kids: yellow raincoats, OshKosh B’Gosh overalls.)
The exhibit could also have had more emphasis on bodies of different
sizes, shapes, and abilities, and on different cultures. Antonelli has
talked about seeking male and female mannequins closer to the average
American size, and one commission, by Lucy Jones, engineers tights for
wheelchair users, with zippers and variable stretch. But Jones’s Seated
Pantyhose are shown sitting on a stool, where even the suggestion of
wheels would have made the design problem that they solve much clearer.

After circling the exhibition, from Little Black Dress (Item 060) to
White T-Shirt (Item 106), I had one last question for Antonelli: “Did
researching fashion change her own style?” In other words, did she make
her own list? She laughed. Although Antonelli and her all-female
curatorial crew wore matching blue boiler suits to the show’s opening
party (Jumpsuit, Item 051), symbolizing the dream of a unisex,
egalitarian utopia, her own style has heretofore been more traditional.
“I have so many blazers,” she said, “because they are a way to be
professionally attired, but I haven’t worn any of them in seven months.
I want to experiment—I feel much more nonchalant.”


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