What happens when you put a pair of Spanx in a museum? They start to speak. With the ambitious and exhilarating Items: Is Fashion Modern?, New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) presents a series of ordinary garments in conversation with themselves, each other and their wearers.
This is only the second time the New York institution has devoted a show to the subject of clothes. The last was in 1944, when renowned architect and designer Bernard Rudofsky brought an interrogative and cantankerous approach to what he called “the field in which the greatest number of people manifest their aesthetic sense, for better or worse”.
That show asked Are Clothes Modern? With Items: Is Fashion Modern? MoMA is asking a series of much more interesting questions: not so much whether or not it is modern, but how does it work, how does it shape us and, most curiously, how does it work as a system. To this end, the show considers the last 100 years of dress through 111 judiciously selected “typologies” that are, as with the humble Spanx, grounded in the quotidian: Speedos, safety pins, hijabs and headphones are all given their respectful, illuminating dues.
Many of these typologies gives us a version of the future, as well the versions of their history. An arsenal of little black dresses, for example, moves beyond the canonical glamour of Chanel and Dior when it culminates in “Little Black (Death) Dress”, a garment that uses thermochromic ink to become “responsive to the touch of grieving loved ones” by changing colour from black to white through the transfer of body heat.
The show’s key premise, that fashion is a form of design, is axiomatic rather than radical, yet art institutions nonetheless remain wary of a subject still suspected to be frivolous or purely commercial.
As curator Paola Antonelli said: “The spark for it was really coming to MoMA 23 years ago and noticing there was no fashion. Having grown up in Milan, fashion is part of life and even though I never thought the MoMA should have the collection that the Met has, or that the Victoria and Albert has – that’s not what we do – I still thought that there were some garments, like the white T-shirt, like Levis 501, that were necessary.”
Antonelli began keeping a private list of “garments that changed the world” and when news of this list reached the museum’s director, Glenn Lowry, he suggested Antonelli build an exhibition.
“The goal,” Antonelli said, “was, number one, to let the world know that you cannot do a history of modern design without fashion. And number two, to make people notice design where it exists. To recognise in the show objects they own or aspire to own and look at them in a different way because they’re in a museum.”
Rudofsky’s 1944 show included an uneven floor (“it conserves the tactile sensibility of our feet, which flat surfaces and modern shoes have destroyed”) as well as a mirror by the exit, to force attendees to confront themselves. Is Fashion Modern? is less hectoring in its approach, being more interested instead in the associative and collective nature of clothing. In this way it is also a political show.
One item, a red football jersey bearing the name “Kaepernick”, was acquired more than a year ago. In the last few days, however, the garment has taken on enormous new symbolic freight as increasing numbers of American athletes follow American footballer Colin Kaepernick’s example and kneel during the national anthem to protest against racial injustice under Donald Trump. As Antonelli asserts, “design is political, unless you purposefully and with effort try to extract it from politics and we never do that. It’s all about human history and that history is always about politics.”
• Items: Is Fashion Modern? is at the MoMA, 1 October 2017 to 28 January 2018
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