The mere pairing of the words Museum of Modern Art and fashion exhibition can send a shiver up the spine of the style obsessed. MoMA has long been an arbiter of high design, and the fashion crowd has been waiting with bated breath for MoMA’s ode to modern fashion since it was announced in 2015. After a preview of the show last week and a stroll through its crowded galleries during an opening party, the consensus is clear: Items: Is Fashion Modern? is not what you expect from either a fashion exhibition or MoMA—and that’s a good thing.
The show began as a list that senior architecture and design curator Paola Antonelli would jot down on a Post-It on her desk of “garments that changed the world.” Eventually, thanks to a little prodding from MoMA director Glenn D Lowry, Antonelli and a team of all female curators set out to turn the list into an exhibition that echoes MoMA’s 1944 show Are Clothes Modern? What’s displayed in the spacious and newly renovated sixth floor galleries is an edited list of 111 items that Antonelli and her team have identified as fashion’s most important game changers. Included in that list are hoodies, jeans, hijab, yoga pants, platforms, stilettos, flip flops, kippahs, chinos, aviator sunglasses, shawls, loafers, door knocker earrings, and the little black dress. 23 brands get a specific call out, six of them for shoes—Nike Air Force 1s, Adidas Stan Smiths, Converse All-Stars, Dr. Martens, Tevas, and the Maison Margiela Tabi boot. Two brands contribute beauty products—YSL Touché Eclat and Chanel No. 5. The items shown are all from the 20th or 21st centuries and are intentionally New York-centric. (See Donna Karan’s Seven Easy Pieces or Prada’s Vela nylon backpack for the proof.)
The exhibition opens with underwear, then Rudi Gernreich’s 1970 interpretations of what fashion would look like in the year 2000—it’s knit jumpsuits, and, based on Paris’s runways this week, he wasn’t that far off. There’s also a selection of little black dresses by Chanel, Givenchy, Arnold Scaasi, Christian Dior, and Charles Creed right at the entrance. That’s followed by a display for platform shoes, pregnancy-wear and fanny packs, Issey Miyake’s A-POC Queen textile, some Courrèges, a Swatch, Moon Boots, and a set up of rebellious garments from the balaclava to the beret to the leather jacket. The exhibition cracks wide open in the next gallery with an expanse of dresses—shift, mini, slip—and culminates with a row of suits and the plain white tee.
All this is underscored with text and slideshows at the base of each section to illustrate how these items are a part of our modern life. To the delight of millennial viewers, a couple of the images look like they were pulled from someone’s Facebook memories, especially the one under the fanny packs display that shows a man in the slatted sunglasses Kanye West favored during his Graduation phase, with a bum bag on his waist at what seems like a house party. (Millenial viewers will probably also notice a missed opportunity in the slip dress section: The 1994 white Calvin Klein dress is the exact same style Alicia Silverstone wears, and snarks about, in Clueless.) But you don’t have to be under 35 to enjoy these pop cultural tidbits. Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s 1783 portrait of Marie Antoinette is in the slip dress section alongside an image of Caroline Bessette Kennedy on her wedding day. Dapper Dan’s Louis Vuitton monogram coat made in the ’80s for Diane Dixon is shown with Gucci’s 2017 runway remake. The point is: Whoever you are, wherever you come from, you are represented here. And that’s a miraculous feat.
It’s this sense of universality that makes Items: Is Fashion Modern? so much fun to experience. While bustling through the opening party, I spotted a teenaged boy in a Bape T-shirt freaking out about a Yeezy sneaker that had been transformed into a mask, an older woman contemplating a micro-miniskirt, a devastatingly chic Uptowner eyeing the Birkin bag, and a group of dudes snapping iPhone photos of the graphic tees in the exhibit. You see yourself in these pieces, in happiness and in sorrow. You will smile at the late, great Richard Nicoll’s LED luminescent minidress as it flickers turquoise and teal in a dark corner. You might cry at the sight of a red Champion hoodie placed high on a black wall like a memorial for Trayvon Martin and his senselessly gunned-down peers. After seeing Colin Kaepernick’s jersey, lined up against other professional jerseys, you will debate with your exhibit-mates about the NFL, the national anthem, and Kaepernick’s career. You will definitely stop in the gift shop and eye up the Ralph Lauren polos, the Breton tops, and the Yankees caps made specially for the show.
What’s more, when you leave you will spend hours, maybe even days, thinking of the items you would choose to represent life today that aren’t included in MoMA’s lineup. What about a hazmat suit? A wedding dress? Socks? Antonelli and her team encourage you to name the items that define your modern wardrobe—and to Instagram them at her with the hashtag #ItemsMoMA. Perhaps that’s the most modern part of this whole exhibition: It’s not a completist creed on fashion, it’s an interactive experience that makes you take stock of your life, your clothes, and what they mean in the world.
Items: Is Fashion Modern? is open at the Museum of Modern Art through January 28.