MoMA’s “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” Exhibition and Collection

111 garments and accessories that altered our perception of style, and 12 pieces you can buy

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In 1944, architect and curator Bernard Rudofsky assembled “Are Clothes Modern?” at NYC’s Museum of Modern Art. It was the first of its kind—a fashion exhibition addressing the design, manufacturing and culture around clothes that seemed to be caught in the grips of pre-WWII traditional attitudes. On 1 October 2017 a similar exhibition, and the museum’s second look at clothing and accessories—both past and future—will fill the sixth floor of MoMA. “Items: Is Fashion Modern” sees fanny-packs and Levi’s jeans accompany baseball caps, puffy down jackets, modest swimsuits and the Birkin bag. Spanning the last 100 years, these iconic additions to what we have worn defined style movements and character types across the decades, often with strong cultural influences (like Sony’s Walkman). It certainly begs the question “What is fashion?” or at least leads to a broader definition of what can be considered: a Kangol bucket hat is on view in the same space as an Yves Saint Laurent Le Smoking jacket, and that’s the point here.

MoMA’s Senior Curator Paola Antonelli organized the exhibition with Michelle Millar Fisher from the Department of Architecture and Design. A goal of Antonelli’s was to demonstrate that “fashion is unquestionably also a form of design.” Together they selected “indispensable items.” Sections flow into one another. Body and silhouette as a concept gives way to an area dedicated to new technologies and a middle section dedicated to rebellion versus modesty (the hoodie, turtleneck and hijab). And of course there’s a section on athletic uniforms and their role outside of sports and finally, every day uniforms like the Breton shirt. The history of items are traced and their catalyst effects are brought into focus.

It certainly feels strange to see a Wonderbra and Calvin Klein underwear on display at MoMA—especially with Chuck Taylors nearby. In fact, these are stand-out items because they defy expectation. One might expect the Chanel No. 5 bottle, a fashion icon for sure, within the museum. But a plaid flannel shirt (a Woolrich model from the ’80s) and clogs or Tevas and a surgical mask, these really call attention to icons of all types, a success of the exhibition without a doubt, and arguably more so than the haute couture pieces or high fashion one finds in other more traditional clothing and fashion exhibits. There’s also a place for several commissions for original work, addressing future needs; these punctuate the exhibition, bringing the viewer into thoughts of the future.

In another clever twist, the MoMA Design Store (in its shops and online) launched a range of limited edition products inspired by the exhibition—some of which will be exclusive to the sixth floor store and updated every few weeks, reflecting a more traditional must be there when they drop mentality. These “Inspired By Items” include accessories like a re-edition of the original Swatch watch design and Ray Ban aviators, but there’s also a Rick Owens scarf and a Seamless Knit Shirt born of Issey Miyake’s manufacturing process. For MoMA’s home city of New York there might not be anything more iconic than the New Era NY Yankees Baseball Cap, which proudly carries the MoMA logo on the side, and in many bright colors. Even the humble Champion sweatshirt gets the MoMA logo, which feels more like a tribe we’ve graduated into from our college version.

“Items: Is Fashion Modern?” runs 1 October through 28 January 2018.

Additional reporting by David Graver, images by Evan Orensten