“Fashion,” with its faint whiff of the trivial — and the feminine — can make “serious” art people blanch, which likely explains the over 70-year gap between the only MoMA exhibitions ever devoted to this subject. Back in 1943, the museum daringly mounted “Are Clothes Modern?” organized by Bernard Rudofsky. This past week, curator Paola Antonelli and her team unveiled their response to Rudofksy: an epic, at times overwhelming show entitled Items: Is Fashion Modern? — featuring 111 “typologies” of items that “changed the world,” displayed in over 350 iterations.
After my three-hour visit to “Items,” I decided that the answer to the title question is “No, fashion is not modern.” Rather, fashion here feels eternal and ubiquitous, transcending both temporality and geography. The exhibition draws vectors between modern fashion and virtually the entire sweep of global history, reminding us that nothing springs ex nihilo. Everything has an antecedent, a historical “archetype,” to use Ms. Antonelli’s Jungian term. To wit: Have you ever noticed how much the DVF wrap dress owes to the Indian sari? (See them side-by-side and it’s obvious.) Or what the 1990s fanny pack owes to the 19th-century bustle? Did you know that platform shoes were worn in 18th-century Turkey? That the Snugli was patterned after a traditional Togolese baby carrier? And so it goes, through an onslaught of objects — the red cotton bandana (whose back story stretches from Martha Washington to Rosie the Riveter), the dashiki, Converse sneakers, ballet flats, stilettos, berets, turtlenecks, zoot suits, pantsuits, jump suits and track suits, sunscreen, hoop earrings, and Y-front briefs. The sheer quantity of “stuff” feels dizzying.
Often, we see an early version of an item alongside a futuristic revision. A lime-green Lily Pulitzer shift dress shares wall space with both a “deconstructed” model by Hussein Chalayan and a Stella McCartney frock rendered in environmentally friendly spider silk. A classic trench coat takes its place next to a disturbing arsenal of sci-fi rain gear by artist Anne Van Galen — including an oversized PVC head protector — which anticipates a future of “ceaseless rainfall” caused by climate change.
But even while invoking such serious and broad topics, “Items” feels personal and intimate, since most items here are quite ordinary and familiar. Some have woven themselves into our daily lives so seamlessly that we barely notice them. Have you thought lately about the cultural significance of your Levi’s? Your Ray Bans? What about your your Gore-tex windbreaker or your tattoo?
Antonelli and her team want you to notice, though; they want you to make that leap from the quotidian to the philosophical, the local to the global, the present to the past (and future), the personal to the political. It’s a laudable goal — in some ways, it’s the goal of all education.
Like any good educators, the curators make use of whatever immediate connection they can establish with their audience. Here, that connection consists in the little shock of recognition sparked by spotting fragments of your own life enshrined in a museum. Your age, gender, and background will determine which items resonate most for you. My own heart skipped a beat when I encountered a tube of Revlon lipstick my late mother once used. I thrilled to see a leotard exactly like the kind I wore for years to ballet class. It was fun to note that I’ve owned Swatches like those displayed here; and hey, that YSL “touche éclat” highlighter is exactly like the one still in my makeup drawer.
Some items will speak to you via their pop culture or sports provenance: outlandish silver platform boots once worn by Elton John, jerseys belonging to Michael Jordan and Colin Kaepernick (the latter presciently selected a year ago). Others are simply wardrobe staples, like the white T-shirt and the little black dress (iterations from Chanel through Dior, Versace, and Rick Owens).
The point is, we connect to these items via our own interior landscape, and we project onto them our memories, fantasies, and anxieties (the Wonderbra and Spanx, for example, likely stir some sensitive issues for many women). In so doing, we also project ourselves outward, into the greater world.
In some cases, the curators provide literal projections to make their point. Two nude mannequins, for example, receive colored light projections illustrating complex tattoo art. And in one of the best displays, a rotating series of iconic logos is projected onto a single white T-shirt—morphing from Mickey Mouse to the Rolling Stones’ classic mouth with tongue, to “I ‘heart’ NY,” to a Keith Haring drawing, and so on. In this way, that lone T-shirt comes to stand in for the entire intellectual premise of “Items,” demonstrating how one basic design item can accrue and reflect myriad cultural meanings.
As so often happens though, a great strength reveals a great weakness. The T-shirt display is brilliant, but many of its cinematic messages are commercial in nature. They are advertisements — for a band, a city, the Disney corporation — but this remains unacknowledged, as does the topic of commerce generally throughout the exhibition. Ads occupy far too great a role here to be used so uncritically. Often, most problematically, advertisements seem to substitute for art-historical information.
Each section provides background for its objects, in the guise of text, photographs or video. Frequently, though, this background takes the form of corporate advertising. A vintage television commercial for the Wonderbra plays in one section; a magazine opens to a print ad for cosmetics in another. A video tutorial on how to pin and fold a Muslim headscarf turns out to be a commercial for a website that sells hijabs. And adjoining a display of Donna Karan’s “Seven Easy Pieces” (her stretchy “power” wardrobe from 1980s), a film on endless replay depicts a glamorous model in dark glasses riding in a limousine while a voiceover recites cryptic, self-serious dialogue. Who is this femme fatale and what is this film with the intrusive soundtrack? Is this another design concept for us to study, a new “typology?” No. The film is yet another advertisement — a 1985 promotional film hawking Donna Karan designs — presented without explication here, as if deserving of an essay in Cahiers du Cinéma.
To a degree, this blurred distinction between design and commerce makes sense. Objects are also merchandise, after all; we buy them. But a show like this needed to acknowledge this gray area, to think through the relationship between the museum display case and the shop window. Instead, the exhibition seems to glorify commodities freely — especially those of the high-end variety.
A vintage Hermès Birkin bag, for example, commands its own vitrine, implying an equivalence between its commercial value (a five-figure price tag and a waiting list) and its cultural import. Other vitrines showcase a Cartier love bracelet; a vintage bottle of Chanel no. 5; a Rolex; diamond earrings; and something called “the money manicure” — nail art depicting dollar signs. Ironically, while the MoMA guards seem fairly relaxed in most of the exhibition, they repeatedly issued stern warnings to visitors sidling up too closely to the luxury goods displays, as if confirming which “items” the museum values most.
Reinforcing this connection between MoMA and Madison Avenue is the exhibition’s aggressively promoted tie-in with the museum’s Design Store, which is featuring a rotating array of commissioned merchandise pegged to the show. The day I visited, I found baseball caps, an updated Breton striped pullover, and specially designed nail polish in colors called “Red Bandana,” “Gold Hoops” and “Denim Jeans.” Store reps repeatedly tried to regale me with descriptions of other fetching items soon to hit the shelves.
In promoting “Items” both MoMA director Glenn Lowry and curator Antonelli have emphasized the exhibition’s user-friendly quality, its accessible focus on everyday items. They’ve even invited the public to tell them what they’ve overlooked, to submit suggestions for a 112 item. I have no doubt this approach will prove effective, driving foot traffic and probably increasing museum store sales. And I applaud the show’s ambition, as well as its serious presentation of fashion.
And yet. Somehow, even as Items makes its case for finding the seriousness in the apparently trivial, as it sees infinity in a grain of sand, it winds up making a more troubling statement too: that “infinity” these days just might lead back to the department store. That we are all connected, yes, but maybe just via global commerce. Thinking back, I realize that Items provoked a kind of déjà vu in me. I recognize now the feeling I got as I wandered among those hundreds of only loosely connected “items,” that sense I had of being overwhelmed: it was exactly the same feeling I get if I stay too long at a shopping mall.
Items: Is Fashion Modern? continues at MoMA (11 West 53 Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through January 28, 2018.