At the end of 2017 MoMA will open an exhibition titled Items: Is Fashion Modern? As a way of announcing the preliminary scope and research of this exhibition, and to begin dialogue around some of the works that will become part of a larger exhibition checklist, we will hold a launch event in May 2016.
Items will consist of a selection of 111 garments and accessories that have had a strong impact on history and society in the 20th and 21st centuries, and that continue to hold currency today. Designs as well known, transformative, and coveted as Levi’s 501s, the Casio watch, and the Little Black Dress, and as ancient and culturally charged as the kippah and the keffiyeh, allow us to explore multivalent issues that these items have contributed to, produced, and shaped over many decades. By treating each as a focused lens, the exhibition will consider the ways in which items are designed, manufactured, and distributed, and will ponder the relationships between clothing and functionality, cultural etiquettes, aesthetics, politics, labor, economy, and technology.
Each of the 111 items will be explored along three tiers: archetype, stereotype, and prototype. In the exhibition, each item will be presented in the incarnation that made it significant in the last 100 (or so) years—the stereotype—accompanied by contextual material (documentary, scholarly, aesthetic, or personal histories of clothing) that trace back to the historical archetype. In some cases, the item will be complemented by a new commission—a prototype. For example, if Diane von Furstenberg’s 1974 wrap dress represents the stereotype of this design form in the 20th century, then Items will extrapolate backwards in time through examples such as Charles James’s 1932 Taxi Dress, all the way to the archetype of the kimono. If, in the course of exhibition research, a type emerged as ripe for a redesign or was identified as a potential vessel for technological, formal, economic, or social transformation, we have decided to commission a new prototype. Thus, within the exhibition, new generations of designers, artists, engineers, and manufacturers will be invited to respond to some of these “indispensable items” with pioneering materials, approaches, and design techniques—extending this conversation into the near and distant futures, and connecting the history of these garments with their present recombination and use.
In a few short weeks, on May 15 and 16, we will hold a two-day event to generate the first external discussions around our research with a gathering of key designers, curators, critics, scholars, activists, and entrepreneurs. The event will be live-streamed on moma.org, and we encourage you to join us online.
During the first part of the event—a salon on Sunday night—four great speakers will discuss how the designs we wear shape us and the worlds we inhabit, dissecting contemporary experiences of and attitudes toward the items in global circulation today. We are honored to host Penny Martin, Editor-in-Chief, The Gentlewoman; Omoyemi Akerele, founder, Lagos Fashion Week; Alphonso McClendon, Associate Professor of Design, Drexel University; and Kim Hastreiter, Editor-in-Chief, Paper magazine.
On the following day we, along with our wonderful event co-curator, the design historian Alexandra Midal, will present an abecedarium, distilling the full exhibition checklist to 26 garments and other iconic elements—one for each letter of the alphabet—spanning from the early 20th century to the present. A dynamic roster of presenters will explore these elements, each in seven-minute vignettes, resulting in a taxonomy of design’s relationship to fashion in past, present, and future incarnations. We will begin with A (for “Air,” for which the respondent is Tinker Hatfield, VP Creative Concepts at Nike) and end with Z (for “zipper,” tackled by Troy Patterson of The New York Times’ On Clothing column). In between, and to name only a few, curator Harold Koda will take on C (“cheongsam”); Pyer Moss founder Kerby Jean Raymond and activist (and current Baltimore mayoral candidate) DeRay McKesson will discuss H (“hoodie”); olfactory neurobiologist Dr. Leslie Vosshall will explain why we all go mad for O (“Opium”); and Mary Ping and Carmen Artigas will engage the intractable and interrelated issues of labor, gender, and economics in R (“Rana Plaza”).
The exhibition title, Items: Is Fashion Modern?, reprises the question that titled architect and curator Bernard Rudofsky’s compelling yet relatively little-known 1944 exhibition Are Clothes Modern?, the only time MoMA has fully addressed this field of design. In the wider architecture and design community, Rudofsky is better known for the exhibition and catalogue he produced at MoMA two decades later, the seminal Architecture Without Architects in 1964. His subtitle for this later exhibition, “A Short Introduction to Non-pedigreed Architecture,” indicates the type of object-centered, design-led investigation that he pioneered, tracing designs rather than designers, and intersectional social concerns rather than individual biographies.
In Are Clothes Modern? Rudofsky explored individual and collective relationships with mid-century clothing in the waning moments of WWII, when convention simply no longer cut it but old attitudes still, in many senses, prevailed: women still poured their bodies into uncompromising silhouettes and menswear still demanded superfluous pockets, buttons, cuffs, and collars. For the Items exhibition, Rudofsky’s question and broad approach provide a springboard (and a foil) from which to consider the ways in which fashion items are designed, manufactured, distributed, and worn today. This design approach—complete, complex, as attentive to ethics as to aesthetics, kaleidoscopic yet exacting—can help locate a new center of gravity for the field of fashion.
The exhibition subtitle Is Fashion Modern? takes on two particularly knotty subjects: the term “fashion” and discourses of modernity. While we have kept his use of a provocative question, we have deliberately replaced Rudofsky’s use of “clothes” with “fashion” to signal the complex relationship between the design of garments and contemporaneity, and to locate our own questions about what is modern in the items that have defined the decades since his show. (And we owe our friend and colleague Glenn Adamson a big thank you for pushing us to be brave in this regard—and for suggesting the subtitle.)
Fashion—whether considered as the clothing of a particular period, place, people, or movement; a behavioral phenomenon; or an especially profound and charged tool for flaunting status, allegiance, and identity—is a contested and thus incredibly rich term to mine in relationship to ideas of the eternal and the fleeting in design. The term “modern” has been central to the curatorial activity of our museum since its founding, and to the Department of Architecture and Design in particular. To be modern holds many connotations. To name just a few interpretations, not all canonical, modern can be understood as a static historical and aesthetic marker of the 20th century; a frenetic sociocultural response to rapidly developing technology and industry; an expression of public and private identities; a contested site in struggles over race, class, and gender; or a fluid and dynamic relationship with global symbols of contemporaneity. We can look to Hegel’s “spirit of the times,” which, for Rudofsky, meant a divorce from 19th-century modes of dress, and for us today means a plural, intersectional understanding of clothing in relation to labor, technology, media, gender, and aesthetics experienced along diverse and global lines.
Past MoMA exhibitions and projects on contemporary design (including SAFE: Design Takes on Risk, 2005; Talk to Me, 2011; and, most recently, Design and Violence, 2014–15) have illustrated that design does not entail only function and aesthetics. Design objects have a peculiar and potent immediacy; they can be appreciated as complex indicators of larger social, cultural, political, and economic contexts. And yet, fashion is too often left out of this equation.
It may seem strange to write this—we are located in a city that sees truly groundbreaking fashion exhibitions led by respected curatorial colleagues—but fashion is often a strangely isolated facet of design within wider academic and public discourses. (This is especially odd given that the great majority of humankind interfaces with clothing on a daily basis.) Rudofsky noted this fact in the press release for Are Clothes Modern? over 70 years ago, and the sentiment remains alive and ready for reconsideration. In an article last week for The New York Times, fashion critic Vanessa Friedman notes astutely that “while fashion may be famous for its elitism, it has long been seen, and often sees itself, as the stepchild of the art world; the less worthy creative form.” This complex extends to, and is arguably in more urgent need of profound reconsideration within, fashion’s home in design as much as its connections to fine art.
Perhaps this strangeness is why we feel emboldened to take it on again at MoMA after such a long hiatus. To say that MoMA has an idiosyncratic history of collecting and exhibiting fashion is a polite exaggeration. Historically, the Museum has deliberately chosen not to engage with fashion in its galleries or its repositories, wary of those most anti-modern terms with which it is often derided: ephemeral, seasonal, faddish. After Rudofsky, it is another four decades before fashion pops up again in the MoMA archives. The wonderfully named Hollywood Di Russo, a freelance curator and fashion stylist, produced a series of contemporary fashion exhibitions (including one on Betsey Johnson) at P.S.1 in the 1980s, two decades before the avant-garde art space became formally affiliated with MoMA.
The result is that there is only a sampling of garments in MoMA’s collection, including Nervous System’s 4D-printed Kinematics Dress (acquired in 2014), the Fruit of the Loom T-shirt featured in Humble Masterpieces (2004), Issey Miyake’s A-POC Queen Textile (1997) and—a gift to the Museum in the late 1980s—a beautiful Mariano Fortuny Delphos dress (1907). Will Items result in a new area of the collection for MoMA? Only time will tell. Collecting fashion is something already done very well by other institutions in New York and beyond. What we can say for now is that Items will embrace not only fashion’s staying power, but also its ephemeral flip side, in order to understand what should remain for generations to come—and what alterations need to be made to ensure a tenable future for an arena that touches us all.