The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, lauded for the fabulousness of its exhibitions of Comme des Garçons, China and Alexander McQueen, finally has some healthy competition. After 70 years of neglect, the Museum of Modern Art has plunged headfirst into fashion, or something like it.
“Items: Is Fashion Modern?” is an intense game of catch-up and only the second exhibition in the Modern’s history devoted to clothing design. Its predecessor — “Are Clothes Modern?” — was organized in 1944, by Bernard Rudofsky, a provocative architect and social historian who posited that most clothing was “anachronistic, irrational and harmful.”
“Profuse” is a useful word with which to approach this ambitious, high-concept effort. Organized by Paola Antonelli, senior curator of the Modern’s architecture and design department, and Michelle Millar Fisher, a curatorial assistant, it has involved years of research and travel and is as anthropological as it is aesthetic.
It’s big, occupying all of the sixth floor’s galleries for temporary exhibitions, which hasn’t happened since the de Kooning extravaganza of 2011. Brilliant use is made of video and slide shows. Around 30 prototypes, including 20 newly commissioned by the museum, add sparks of ingenuity — and of course there is a gift shop fuller than usual of sartorial temptations.
But all in all, “Items” has few of the showstopping moments of extreme craftsmanship, innovation or material lavishness that are a staple of the Met’s productions. Including “items” like bluejeans, flip flops, tattoos and a burkini, it largely evades the air of expense, exclusivity and hauteur typical of these ventures. It’s even a bit on the austere side, harkening back to the Modern’s displays in the 1930s and ’40s of the latest kitchenware and furniture — shows that argued for modern design as an affordable way to improve modern life. It is also, to its credit, an exercise in consciousness-raising that plots the flow of stylistic conventions from subcultures and colonial countries into the Western mainstream and highlights dress as self-expression and political protest — most directly, with a projection of graphic T-shirts.
Faithful to the museum’s way of telling the history of art as a linear, primarily Western phenomenon, “Items” also comes with its own canon — albeit one that is more global and historically aware in scope.