From October 1st, 2017 through January 28, 2018 the Museum of Modern Art in New York will present its second-ever exhibition about clothing. Called “Items: Is Fashion Modern?”, it is the descendant of 1944’s “Are Clothes Modern?”. The exhibition explores the present, past — and sometimes the future — of 111 items of clothing and accessories that have had a strong impact on the world in the 20th and 21st centuries and continue to hold currency today. Among them are pieces as well-known and transformative as the Levi’s 501s, the Breton shirt, and the Little Black Dress, and as ancient and culturally charged as the sari, the pearl necklace, the kippah, and the keffiyeh.
“Items: Is Fashion Modern?” will also envolve some designers, engineers, and manufacturers to respond to some of these indispensable items with pioneering materials, approaches, and techniques, extending this conversation into the near and distant futures, and connecting the history of these garments with their present recombination and use. Driven first and foremost by objects, not designers, the exhibition considers the many relationships between fashion and functionality, culture, aesthetics, politics, labor, identity, economy, and technology.
The exhibition catalogue, by Paola Antonelli and Michelle Millar Fisher, is also available. The catalogue accompanies the first fashion exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art since 1944. An essay by curator Paola Antonelli highlights the Museum’s unique perspective on fashion and explores fashion’s role in the changing landscape of design. The 111 texts that follow trace the history of each item in relation to labor, marketing, technology, religion, politics, aesthetics and popular culture. Arranged alphabetically, these essays are richly illustrated with archival images, fashion photography, film stills, and documentary shots. Punctuating the book are newly commissioned photographic portfolios that bring a vibrant creative energy to the project.
During the first part of the event 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. On the following days an abecedarium, distilling the full exhibition checklist to 26 garments and other iconic elements will be presented, 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, beginning with A (for “Air,” for which the respondent is Tinker Hatfield, VP Creative Concepts at Nike) and ending with Z (for “zipper,” tackled by Troy Patterson of The New York Times’ On Clothing column).
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 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.)