Items: Is Fashion Modern?

By Alexa Epstein

Image from MoMA

Image from MoMA


The crossover between the art and fashion worlds has long been a point of contention. To work in either industry requires thought and craftsmanship to yield stunning work. Yet the fashion industry is considered fast-paced and market-driven, unlike the timeless value of some works of art. The MoMA’s Items: Is Fashion Modern?, the Museum’s second ever fashion-related exhibition, explores fashion’s role in art as well as in our rapidly changing world, through a series of garments ranging from simple hoodies to commissioned architectural jumpsuits. Unlike the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, which often focuses on design, craftsmanship, and authorship, the MoMA’s exhibit explores the dichotomies of the local and global, historical and contemporary, showing the universality of fashion and its involvement and influence in our everyday lives.

The items are divided by archetype, prototype, and stereotype. Listlike in structure, the exhibit takes viewers through iconic garments of the past, intermingled with imagined versions of the future, commissioned for the exhibit by designers including Rei Kawakubo and Richard Malone. This exploration, pushing iconic designs of history into contemporary times, makes for an introspective look into the fashion world. A typical breton striped shirt, for example, sits next to 2017’s Bret.on, designed digitally by company Unmade into a swirly, Starry Night-esque pattern. The modern update shown next to a classic design explores both sides of fashion—one that is constantly changing, the other preserved in time.

The exhibit chooses very specifically to focus on the educational rather than the phenomenal. While some garments demonstrate tremendous craftsmanship and creativity, others explore the mundane. The choice to include both kinds of garments does a good job of  pulling in the non fashion-minded viewer. Every garment, even mass-produced undershirts that come in a plastic bag of five, is a part of the fashion industry, the aforementioned example being a key piece in the sartorial choices that everyone makes each morning. Naturally, iconic pieces are scattered throughout the exhibit as well: Alexander McQueen’s armadillo shoes, Norma Kamali’s sleeping bag coat, a Louboutin pump, and an Hermés Birkin bag all make the trip to the Museum worthwhile for the avid fashionista. The garments, varying in time, place, texture, and production method, explore various states of culture and subculture. Mini dresses line one wall, including a Harry Gordon disposable paper dress with a blow up of Bob Dylan’s face, which contrasts with the intricately geometric Hussein Chalayan dress that hangs nearby. In another corner the 1960s fascination with the space age is explored, featuring Pierre Cardin’s Cosmos ensembles as well as “moon boots” replicating the shoes worn on the first moon walk.

In a contemporary juxtaposition of the same concept is a Kerby Jean-Raymond 2017 Aquos, a suit inspired by the designs of the space age but applied to the present. Concerned with environmental changes, particularly the likelihood of major cities being flooded due to global warming, Jean-Raymond developed this flotation device. It’s 3D-printed front is both decorative and utilitarian, making the garment both easily visible and beautiful. The futuristic design vaguely resembles the work of Hussein Chalayan, who also often focuses on fashionable solutions to displacement in political situations.

The exhibit dives into social justice issues as well, exploring not only how fashion is impacted by its surrounding contexts but also how changes within the fashion industry itself impact the rest of the world. Next to a typical French bikini sits the more modern “burkini,” a swimsuit designed to accommodate the modesty practiced by many Muslim women. The burkini made waves in 2016 when it was banned from a beach in France. Lining another wall is a series of yarmulkes, a symbol of the Jewish faith. The Museum presents a red Champion hoodie, recalling Trayvon Martin and exploring how a hoodie can be both protective and put a target on the wearer’s back. Issues of maternity and public breastfeeding are explored by Wei Hung Chen’s 2017 Modular Dress 2.0. The piece, a white frock that can change shape with a series of hook and eye closures, allows for women to wear it throughout all stages of pregnancy, including post-pregnancy and breastfeeding. This garment assists pregnant women with mobility and eliminates the wastefulness associated with maternity clothes.

Richard Malone’s jumpsuit investigates and challenges gender constructs. Jumpsuit Specimen, made in 2017 for this exhibition, takes on the jumpsuit’s long and transformative history, creating a unisex suit that helps to collapse traditional gendered garments. The jumpsuit has gone from a utilitarian uniform meant for the working class to a symbol of egalitarianism to an object of freedom for women in the 1960s and ‘70s United States, helping to normalize pants for women. Malone’s take on the suit, made of black and white stripes with contrasting yellow sculptural swirls across the collar and sleeves, addresses the transformations that jumpsuits have gone through, and poses a new one: a jumpsuit for all gender identities. The exhibit breaks up the monotonous nature of its huge space well with “mini-stories,” short videos that explore specific garments. In one, a documentary shows the dozens of ways to tie a sari. These small-scale explorations offer some extra-credit learning without cluttering the already huge exhibit.

Overall, the MoMA takes on fashion for the first time in seventy years in Items: Is Fashion Modern? The exhibition is unlike those in the Met Costume Institute, which prefer to show the dedicated craftsmanship behind fashion. Instead, the MoMA takes on fashion from a historical, cultural, and sociological perspective, exploring how fashion can inform the times as much as the times inform fashion.


Originally published 12/11/17