At MoMA: What’s Art, What’s Fashion, and What’s Design?
A-POC Le Feu, by Issey Miyake and Dai Fujiwara, from the Issey Miyake spring/summer 1999 collection. Photograph by Yasuaki Yoshinaga courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.

At MoMA: What’s Art, What’s Fashion, and What’s Design?

Aimee Walleston looks forward at MoMA’s new fashion-centric exhibition, "Items: Is Fashion Modern?", and back at the exhibition’s predecessor, 1944’s "Are Clothes Modern?"

How does clothing transform into "fashion design"—and when do those designs become art? Looking to provide some answers, Items: Is Fashion Modern? is, remarkably, the Museum of Modern Art's first fashion-centric exhibition in 73 years. Though one might expect this vast gap to impel the institution toward defining fashion as an art form in the present moment, Senior Curator Paola Antonelli and Curatorial Assistant Michelle Millar Fisher have chosen to collect 111 "items" oriented by (according to a wall text) "their influence on the world over the past one hundred years."


The show opens with a row of undergarments—including a pair of Band-Aid-hued Spanx underpinnings and a pertly expectant 1990s-era Wonderbra—presented dramatically in a black vitrine. While a team of fashion-world advisors (including Penny Martin, editor of The Gentlewoman, and Shayne Oliver, designer for Hood by Air and Helmut Lang) were enlisted to consult on the exhibition, a good percentage of the garments on display are things one might find (or have found) at a big-box retailer, from a Hanes white cotton t-shirt to a fleece jacket. The curators pair each "item" with a tripartite explication organized according to "archetype," "stereotype," and "prototype." The focus leans heavily on stereotype, a categorization which is "subjective but drew on collective consciousness." In a filmed interview with MoMA director Glenn Lowry (who, during the proceedings, unexpectedly confesses to a shoe fetish), Antonelli explains that, "The stereotype is . . . close your eyes, and if you think of that item, what do you see?" The ur-hoodie, for example, is channeled through a red Champion pullover that hovers in solitude on one wall, like a ghost from the '80s. In many instances, the designation is less of an exact science (several items are represented through multiple garments, making the specific "stereotype" rather murky). The archetype—that item's antecedent—is represented solely by contextual wall text that traces the item's historical lineage. The prototype—which accompanies only a third of the items and was often commissioned by the institution—is comprised of a "modern" innovation to the stereotype. The little black dress is shown in several stereotypical forms, including an iconic 1925–27 beaded silk chiffon and satin evening dress designed by Coco Chanel. It is followed by a "prototype" that harkens toward dystopic science fiction: designer Pia Interlandi's 2017 Little Black (Death) Dress, a black embroidered body bag overdyed with thermochromatic ink—the same substance used by clothing brand Generra in their faddish Hypercolor t-shirts from the early '90s. The dye allows the warm hands of mourners touching the deceased's body to leave temporarily visible handprints on the garment.

Items' focus on its garments' intrinsic design qualities, over their affect when worn on the moving body, can sometimes make the presentation feel evacuated, as though a crowd of people walked out naked and left only their clothing behind. A selection of historic and contemporary videos helps enliven the galleries, which are otherwise dominated by static mannequins, vitrines, and apparel flattened against the walls. A black tunic and matching pompom shorts from the spring/summer 2014 "Vicious" collection by Paris-based American designer Rick Owens is complemented by a video of Owens' Paris fashion week presentation of the same collection, featuring members of four American step dance troupes (Washington Divas, Soul Steppers, Momentum, and Zetas) performing an 11-minute routine. A Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore-tinged poetic meditation on the turtleneck ( T = Turtleneck) by young Muslim designer Hana Tajima accompanies a 1980 black cotton jersey Issey Miyake turtleneck—a Steve Jobs favorite. Donna Karan's 1985 Seven Easy Pieces collection is joined by an ultra-'80s "power woman" brand film directed by Denis Piel, in which a voiceover asks: "Are successful women different from other women? We're all just lookin' for a little admiration; to walk into a room and have someone say, 'Ahhh, there she is.'"

Installation view of Items: Is Fashion Modern? Photograph by Martin Seck courtesy of the Modern Museum of Art.

With its phenomenological approach to its subject matter, Items may qualify better as a design exhibition rather than a fashion one, recalling Antonelli's 2004 MoMA exhibition Humble Masterpieces: Everyday Marvels of Design, a celebration of commonplace objects (M&Ms, Post-It notes) positioned as "service design." In the current exhibition, one finds a less-than-servile (though somewhat one-off) gesture to contemporary politics in the curatorial designation of Colin Kaepernick's 49ers jersey to archly represent the standard football top. This refreshingly subjective inclusion provides something of a bridge to the exhibition's far more radical precursor: the 1944 Are Clothes Modern?, curated by MoMA's then-Director of Apparel Research, Bernard Rudofsky. At the time, Time called Rudofsky's presentation—the only other fashion exhibition in MoMA's history— "a strange but provocative show," and cited museum officials who declared the traveling presentation "'violently popular.'" Where the current exhibition presents an expressly objective survey (not the items the curators personally deem important but more what culture itself has decreed vital) Rudofsky was almost inversely inspired: his exhibition proposed a cultural revolution in the ways in which people dressed themselves. Rudofsky, a professional architect and polymath, found the manner in which Western culture dictated fashion to be utterly absurd, bordering on pathological. (Commissioned to give a series of lectures at Black Mountain College, he titled one: "How Can People Expect to Have Good Architecture When They Wear Such Clothes?") In Rudofsky's obituary, the New York Times called Are Clothes Modern? "an examination of the incompatibility of the human body and clothing." In the show itself, Rudofsky included scolding sections titled "The Desire to Conform" and "The Abuse of Materials." In Items, homage is paid to Rudofsky in the form of four 1944 plaster models—"Body Idols"—that he and sculptor Constantino Nivola made to bemoan bourgeois fashion's historic cruelty to the female body. Each—including a haplessly swaybacked creature with a giant monobosom titled The One-Breasted Gibson Girl with Lordosis—reveal what the naked female form would look like if it were to physically mirror the artificial fashion silhouettes that shaped it.

In the press release for Are Clothes Modern?, Rudofsky posits: "It is strange that dress has been generally denies the status of art, when it is actually a most happy summation of esthetic, philosophic and psychological components." The current presentation at MoMA leans toward positioning its "items" more as functional design than art, suggesting that—from this institution's perspective—garments can aspire to the status of "important design," but fashion itself still has yet to qualify as an art form. While one can speculate on this aversion, it might be more worthwhile to consider Rudofsky's impassioned stance: "While painting, sculpture and dance have very definite limitations, dress at its best not only comprises notable elements of these arts, but its sovereign expressiveness through form, color, rhythm—it has to be worn to be alive—its intimate relation to the very source and standard of all esthetic evaluations, the human body, should make it the supreme achievement among the arts."