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In their first foray into fashion in over 40 years, the Museum of Modern Art has assembled some of the most iconic fashion items — from the biker jacket to the little black dress — in their new exhibition Items: is Fashion Modern? But no item may be more important or salient to our contemporary politics than one: Colin Kaepernick’s jersey.
Kaeprnick’s jersey is one of several pieces representing clothing that has transformed from a utilitarian uniform on the field to a capitalist commodity in stores. And though it became one of the best-selling jerseys in the official NFL merchandise Top 50 list, it holds symbolic significance consisting of more than its commodity fetishism. It has a resonance that is apparent to most viewers, as this jersey in particular has been transmogrified into a symbol of protest and racial liberation.
As explained in a statement from Paola Antonelli and the curatorial team,
We hope that visitors to Items will see in these sports jerseys not only the blood, sweat, and tears of their original wearers but also the complex synthesis of aesthetics, personal choice, collective style, politics, business, race, gender, marketing, labor, and technology that are embodied by their reproductions.
Though fresh and meaningful, one cannot help but smell the waft of opportunism by the curators, especially since the exhibition as a whole wrestles with problems of colonialism and racism throughout.
The inclusion of specific racial and cultural dress like the caftan and sari are contextualized through a Western lens — the former accompanied by a photograph of Elizabeth Taylor during her caftan phase, the latter juxtaposed with a Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dress — which, while showing the lineage of fashion design, also shortchanges the viewer’s worldliness. Kaepernick’s jersey falls somewhere in this spectrum of broadening the often exclusionary world of fashion, and succumbing to it on its own terms, for the sake of spectacle.
Nevertheless, it’s the true stand-out piece in an otherwise standard exhibition. (It even made the highly coveted “Highbrow/Brilliant” quadrant of New York Magazine’s Approval Matrix). Kaepernick’s act of “taking a knee” during the national anthem to protest discrimination and police brutality, symbolized by his jersey, is worthy of the distinction of being displayed in a museum. Solidly incorporating what’s typically a symbol of competition into a narrative of solidarity, the semiotics of this particular fashion item convey how even a shirt can mean much more than its threads.
The exhibition Items: is Fashion Modern? continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53 Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through January 28.
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