October 1, 2017–January 28, 2018

In fall 2017, The Museum of Modern Art presented Items: Is Fashion Modern?, an investigation of 111 garments and accessories that have had a profound effect on the world over the last century. The exhibition posited that—like other forms of design—fashion exists within a complex system that involves politics and economics as much as it involves style, technology, and culture.

The 111 typologies were presented in the incarnation that made them significant in the last 100 years (the “stereotype”) alongside contextual materials—images or videos—that traced each item’s history and origins through to its archetypal form. Several concept items (the Little Black Dress, for instance) were represented by more than one example in order to fully underscore the breadth of the concept’s impact, bringing the actual total number of objects in the exhibition to around 350. About 28 items were complemented by a new prototype—a commissioned or loaned piece inspired by advancements in technology, social dynamics, aesthetics, or political awareness. Items was organized by Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator, Department of Architecture and Design, and Director of Research and Development; and Michelle Millar Fisher, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Architecture and Design, The Museum of Modern Art. The title of the exhibition reprises the question that architect and curator Bernard Rudofsky raised with his 1944 MoMA exhibition Are Clothes Modern?, which is the only other instance of MoMA fully addressing this field of design.

In his exhibition, Rudofsky explored individual and collective relationships with mid-century clothing in the waning moments of WWII, when traditional attitudes still 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 provided a springboard (and a foil) from which to consider the ways in which fashion is designed, manufactured, marketed, distributed, worn, and disposed of today.Items is the first exhibition on fashion at The Museum of Modern Art since 1944, when Rudofsky’s provocation was intended to prod museum goers to reconsider their relationship with the clothes they wore. The updated question—Is Fashion Modern?—shifts the focus from the individual to the collective sphere and highlight not only the ways in which clothing is made but also the ways in which it might be made.

The items were loosely grouped throughout the galleries, in order to provide both deliberate and accidental adjacencies as the public moves through the exhibition. The installation began with an area devoted to the mutating idea of body and silhouette, highlighting issues of size, image, and gender with examples of the Little Black Dress, the Wonderbra, the sari, and Rudi Gernreich’s Unisex Project, among many others. The exhibition then moved into a zone devoted to new technologies and visions of the future, bringing together experiments such as Issey Miyake’s A-POC and Pierre Cardin’s Cosmos Collection along with Gore-Tex, the leotard, and Moon Boot. A middle gallery was devoted to a study of the relationship between emancipation, modesty, introversion, and rebellion, which paradoxically share many common fashion traits. Introduced by the hoodie and the turtleneck, the section included items as diverse as leather pants, the slip dress, the bikini, the hijab, and kente. Following was a section devoted to items whose foremost function is to deliver a message, whether explicitly—as in a graphic T-shirt, a tattoo, and a bandanna—or implicitly, as in a Birkin bag or a diamond engagement ring. A section dedicated to the myriad ways fashion and athleticism have intersected over the past century included sports jerseys, streetwear staples like the polo shirt, classics like Converse All Stars, and revered high-fashion collaborations like Yohji Yamamoto’s Y-3. From there, the exhibition flowed into a section dedicated to everyday uniforms, featuring such humble masterpieces as the Breton shirt and Levi’s 501s, professional attire such as the pencil skirt and loafers, and applications of the multipurpose Dutch wax. Finally, the exhibition’s conclusion interrogated the concept of power with, among others, a selection of suits, Donna Karan’s Seven Easy Pieces, stilettos, and the pearl necklace.

At the close of the exhibition was a data visualization by the information designer and Accurat founder Giorgia Lupi—in collaboration with Glasgow Caledonian University in New York’s Fair Fashion Center—which revealed hidden connections and patterns within the 111 items and showed the macro and micro-level role of the viewer in the systems of fashion and sustainability. As part of the exhibition, some designers, artists, scientists, engineers, and manufacturers were invited to respond to some of these “indispensable items” with pioneering materials, approaches, and design revisions—extending this conversation into the near and distant future, and connecting the history of these garments with their present recombination and use. These prototype designers included both emerging and established figures in the fields of fashion, design, science, and technology. A few (nine individuals or studios) provided pre-existing work, but the majority (19) were commissioned to create for Items original work that engaged a future need, speculation, or desire that fashion might fulfill. Participants included Laduma Ngxokolo (South African) with the Aran sweater; Verbal and Yoon (Korean, lives in Japan) with the Cartier Love Bracelet; Pia Interlandi (Australian) with the Little Black Dress; Unmade (British) with the Breton shirt; Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss (American) with Pierre Cardin’s Cosmos Collection; Chen Zhi (Chinese) with the pencil skirt; and Lucy Jones (Welsh) with tights.

In this exhibition, garments created for the benefit of many coexisted with those made for the delight of a few. What they had in common was their influence on the world over the past one hundred years. The 111 items featured in this exhibition were hardly exhaustive, either in terms of cultural or geographic reach. The curators chose to celebrate their center of gravity, New York, using the city as an observatory and its inhabitants and copious visitors as discussion starters. Their provocation to visitors was this: “Go ahead, make your own list, notice the overlaps, and let us know what we forgot by using the hashtag #itemsMoMA. We hope the exhibition will prompt you to look at fashion with more curiosity, awareness, agency, and respect.”

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