Why MoMA’s “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” Is Not the Exhibition You Were Expecting
Plus, the behind-the-scenes stories of 10 objects in the show—and one more that got away.
by Sasha Levine
September 26, 2017
The title of the Museum of Modern Art’s highly anticipated show asks “Is Fashion Modern?” But as the institution’s first exhibition devoted to fashion in seven decades—since former curator Bernard Rudofsky’s “Are Clothes Modern?”—it also raises the question, “Is fashion right for MoMA?”
When the exhibition opens, on Oct. 1, 2017, senior curator Paola Antonelli and her staff in the design and architecture department will issue a major correction to the institution’s longstanding silence on the matter with a sprawling exhibition of 350 garments and accessories—proving, that in fact, it is. Split among 111 different typologies, or sartorial conceits (the little black dress, the tracksuit, the door-knocker earring, the dashiki, the kilt), the massive sixth-floor takeover investigates the influence of these objects on 20th- and 21st-century aesthetics, economics, politics, and culture. “We believe that one of the reasons that fashion has been neglected at the Museum of Modern Art is because it has been tagged as ‘feminine’ for way too many decades,” she says. “We don’t want that to happen to this show.”
It will not, Antonelli warns, resemble the exhibitions of its New York neighbors: not the Met Costume Institute’s thematic propositions (superheros, punk, man versus machine), the Jewish Museum’s monographic spotlights (Isaac Mizrahi), the Brooklyn Museum’s histories of single items (the high heel, the sneaker), nor the assembly of this range offered by FIT. “There’s a landscape of museums and we complement each other,” Antonelli says. “We are really in the business of ideas, of advancing theories—partial, global, absolute, and relative—with support from objects,” she says. “I also tend to like doing these kinds of shows because I’m not very good at dealing with one person with a big ego,” she adds, laughing. “Not my thing.”
Antonelli’s challenge to the fashion-exhibition stereotype has been years in the making. “I had started a list for the collection called ‘Garments That Changed the World’ 10 years ago.” Having already acquired video games and digital typeface for the institution, garments were the logical next step for Antonelli. But she wasn’t the only one keeping tabs. She and her staff at the museum—including Anna Burckhardt, Kristina Parsons, Stefanie Kramer, and Michelle Millar Fisher—assembled an advisory council made up of fashion industry aces such as Mickey Boardman and Kim Hastreiter (Paper magazine), Julie Gilhart, Malika Verma Kashyap (Border & Fall), Shayne Oliver (Helmut Lang), and Michael Preysman (Everlane), among others. With their help, the exhibition began to take shape, the checklist swelling to as many as 564 concepts (the sock, the hazmat suit) at its most robust.
In its final iteration, the items are loosely organized throughout the sixth floor in a way Antonelli hopes will spark connections, without overdoing it with flashy titles and lengthy wall text. In one section, maternity clothing sits adjacent to a Louis Vuitton fanny pack and Rei Kawakubo’s “Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body.” A padded mannequin squeezed into Spanx and Rudofsky’s famous warped figures are close by. An oversized contemporary guayabera reinterpreted by Japanese designer Ryohei Kawanishi stands across from kente cloth from the 1960s. Dashiki share a stage with nine kippah. A lone red hoodie hangs against a black wall. The show closes on a Hanes white T-shirt.
“I always say it’s like a car wash,” Antonelli explains. “I hope people will walk into the show and come out with a different polish, and look at themselves with more awareness.” Awareness of the political messages their clothing communicates; of the stress their making puts on the environment; of their complex histories and uncertain futures; of how we are all implicated, whether you’re paying attention or not.
“People will come in and have many different opinions about this exhibition and we’re really okay with that,” says Fisher. “We have left it in the end as an open-ended question for people to investigate on their own terms. It’s definitely not an exhaustive list. It’s a starting point.”
Below, the team give us the behind-the-scenes stories of a few of the items on view.
A Champion hoodie from the 1980s.
The hoodie is one of those items that has had a long and multifaceted life, and one that’s become so politically charged. But this sweater, with the hood and the string, with or without the zipper, is from the 1930s, from a company that was called Knickerbocker Knitting Company, before it became Champion. Initially the hoodie was made for athletes, to keep them warm before or after training. It was immediately co-opted by construction and cold-storage workers. Then in the 1970s and ’80s it became city-dwelling kids’ garment of choice when skateboarding illegally or writing graffiti or breakdancing. There’s an aspect of the hoodie that’s become a kind of quiet defiance of the system—of wanting to be in the middle of it but somehow away from it. The hoodie gives you a false impression of being invisible. All these different histories bring us to today. The Treyvon Martin and George Zimmerman incident a few years ago transformed the hoodie into this symbol of injustice. We’re going to have this red Champion hoodie from the 1980s—when it’s at the moment of transition. But it’s going to be there by itself and we’re hoping it’s going to be really resonant. It shows the power that certain garments have to become symbols for political struggle. —Paola Antonelli
Spanx, center, displayed with pantyhose (left) and briefs (right).
One of the dressers responsible for displaying the items on mannequins was putting the Spanx on what we all noticed to be a skinny mannequin. We thought, “Come on, that isn’t the kind of woman who would be wearing Spanx.” So Noelle Kichura, the dresser, had it padded out with batting and left for the weekend. When she came back she was really concerned that someone had messed with it: It looked different, it was all smooth. So she measured the legs and wrote down the numbers. She came back to measure days later, and it had shrunk a quarter inch. A week later, it had shrunk another quarter inch. Our curatorial team is now in two firm camps: One of “Let’s go buy them right now,” and the other camp of “Never are we ever putting these on our bodies.” It’s fascinating when you think about it because we relate Spanx to corsetry, and here we are seeing it in real time, constricting our mannequin back to her size-zero smooth self. There’s a lot of places you could go with that. —Kristina Parsons
Maternity clothing from the 1950s (left) with a prototype commission from Wei Hung Chen (center) and a Snugli from 1971..
Maternity clothing! I cannot name a really good scholarly text, a really good exhibition, anything that has focused on this area of design. We have, and it’s great. We’ve gone from the beginning: Lane Bryant, set up by designer Lena Bryant, was created to clothe women who were not sample size. One of the first commissions she got was to make a maternity dress for a pregnant client. So the history of so called “plus-size fashion” intersects really nicely with the history of maternity, which again most people just sideline. We commissioned a prototype for it, too. We asked Wei Hung Chen, a young Parsons grad, to reinterpret a pregnancy and postpartum dress. He came back and said, “You’ve totally changed my perspective as a designer—I now think about dressing women differently.”—Michelle Millar Fisher
Door-knocker hoop earrings.
The Door-Knocker Earring
Growing up, I watched Sex in the City and I remember thinking, What is this white woman, the character of Carrie, doing with these door knockers? It really struck a nerve for me. I was really interested in the travel of this typology between different types of people—something that belonged to one group and suddenly is being used in high fashion. Ricardo Tisci, for example, did a collection for Givenchy that he described as Chola Victorian, and it’s really beautiful. The door-knocker earring is not really a fixed typology—it could be large, it could be small, it could be square, trapezoidal, but typically a hoop. Some people just call it bamboos. It’s also really one of our only examples in the exhibition of jewelry that is pretty much universally accessible, from a socioeconomic standpoint: You can get fairly cheap mass-market door knockers and incredibly expensive, precious ones, too. I talked to a lot of people from different cultures for whom the door knocker is really important, and it just so happened that while we were researching, they became a topic of conversation in contemporary press after a group of students of color wrote on Pitzer College’s free speech wall, ‘White girls take off your hoops.’ This particular accessory has been a lightening rod surrounding conversations about cultural appropriation. —Stefanie Kramer
Projections of tattoos on mannequins.
It has a really close relationship to the body in the same way that a garment that you clothe yourself with has an intimate relationship with your identity: What you want to project in the world, how you feel about yourself. There’s the tattoo as a signifier of your belonging to a certain community, or as a signifier of an event in your life. —Kristina Parsons
There are very definite paths of appropriation and uptake—all the same things you might talk about in terms of fashion with styles, trends, and timelessness. You can trace the movements and styles of tattooing in the same way you might talk about a designer’s collection. There’s a history of tattooing where you can go into a store and pick flash off the wall, and it’s a bit like going into Zara and picking something from off the rack. Or you go in and your work with a tattoo artist that’s the only person that can make that type of mark on your skin. It means something very different. —Michelle Millar Fisher
A panama hat (right), shown with a wool tweed Pirandello hat (left).
The Panama Hat
The Panama Hat—which actually comes from Ecuador, not Panama—really brings the importance of craft into the exhibition. We managed to get in touch with this amazing artisan, Holger Domingo Carranza, who lives in Pile, which is a really remote town and one of the only towns in Ecuador that actually grows the plant you need to weave the hats. These hats can be really expensive—they can range from maybe $200 to many thousands—when they’re made in this way, in this region. Because they’re so expensive, we wanted to borrow a hat from this artisan. But he didn’t really have an address, because this town is so small, and he didn’t really have a DHL near him either. So he sent the hat—and this was a really fine hat, you couldn’t see the spaces between the weave—through Ecuador’s USPS equivalent. When it got here, it was just completely flat. We took it to the most expert hat shop here in New York, JJ Hat Center, to see if they could maybe steam it, iron it—something! The sadness in this guy’s eyes when he saw it. He said it was the finest hat of its kind he had seen, and he knew it was irreparable. We had to send it back. The artisan managed to send us a new one. It’s just as nice—but maybe it’s not as fine. —Anna Burckhardt
Dashiki styles from New Breed (left) and Lagos Balogun Market (right).
No one has ever told the story of New Breed Clothing, a company that made dashikis in New York and elsewhere in the 1970s, in a museum or any kind of scholarly fashion book, anything, but dashikis are incredibly important. They were part of the Civil Rights movement and imbricated in the same struggles as the Black Panther movement. This really feels like a new contribution to the discussion of what fashion can do to advance the conversation around race and culture in the U.S. in particular. And New Breed, in particular, was part of this: They were explicit in their mission statement that they wanted to be able to create an economic machine for the empowerment of black Americans. They opened in Harlem in 1968, and had 19 other store fronts in the U.S., and a factory in an old building in Bedford-Stuyvesant, in Brooklyn. The dashikis they made were fantastic! Not like the kind you would expect—the colorful dashiki with the decoration around the neck—but a New York kind, in colors like gray and black. Very Shaft—if Shaft wore a dashiki. They had all of the celebrities of the day coming into their Harlem store: Aretha Franklin was into this kind of stuff. Jason and Mabel Benning, two of the brand’s cofounders, had four daughters. What Valarie Benning Barney and her sisters managed to keep of their parents wardrobe was all in a closet in her apartment—and now we get to show one of these in the exhibition. —Michelle Millar Fisher
Remake of Bruce Lee's tracksuit from Longstreet.
A lot of thinking went into choosing how to handle the tracksuit. Which do you pick? Is it one brand over the other? Is it the Juicy Couture moment? We arrived at the Solomonic decision to enlist a friend. Sharon Lee lives in Los Angeles and is an expert on trends and culture. She was in the office of her friend, filmmaker Matt Weaver, who told Sharon that every time he tried to email her, the name of Shannon Lee, who is Bruce Lee’s daughter, would auto-populate the email address. (Their kids went to school together.) For years, Sharon had one of Bruce Lee’s quotes on the back of her business cards—he has always been one of her master teachers. She took it as a sign from the universe and asked Weaver to introduce them. Sharon and Shannon have been friends ever since. A few years after they met, Shannon asked Sharon to help her with the Bruce Lee Family Company—to tell the whole story of her father as an artist/philosopher, not just a movie star. So, for the exhibition, they helped us remake the iconic red Bruce Lee tracksuit from Longstreet, the 1970s TV series that lasted one year. (It must have been really terrible.) —Paola Antonelli
Glen Raven Panti-legs from the 1960s (right), displayed with Seated Pantyhose by Ffora (left).
For tights, we are borrowing a pair from the 1960s from a company called Glen Raven, based in North Carolina. Today, their most popular item is materials for ship and boat awnings, and outdoor furniture umbrellas. They also do industrial textiles, including a material that helps army tanks drive onto sand. But in the ’50s, they were one of the first companies in the United States to start doing what we call either pantyhose or tights, wherein the stocking is attached to the underwear part. The story that they tell is that the wife of owner Alan Gant Sr. was pregnant and it was difficult for her to bend over to reattach her stockings when they’d curl down her leg. That was the impetus for the invention, which they called Panti-Legs, and it took a lot of adjustments to the knitting machinery. Anyway, they invite me to their history room, which is like this frozen little time vault: It’s staged like a house museum, with a credenza with the old pens of Alan Gant Sr. His grandson, Alan Gant Jr., pulls out three boxes of tights from the ’50s and starts waving the tights around. I look at him, wide-eyed, and I ask if we can borrow a pair of these for the exhibition. And he goes, ‘Yep! You might want to take all three, because I have a feeling that if you try to dress them, one will rip. Just know you only have three chances!’ We’re not going to put them on legs. —Stefanie Kramer
Kente by Julie "Chez Julie" Norteye (left) and Nana Keaku Duah (right).
Historically, kente has always been part of West African culture, but it became associated with national identity and national pride after Ghana became the first sub-Saharan country to gain independence from colonial rule in 1957. Kente became, for the first time, part of a new moment in fashion in the country, with designers like Julie “Chez Julie” Norteye. She left Ghana to train in Paris, and when she returned, she began tailoring pieces of kente to the body, which weren’t usually cut—they were wrapped. We have one of these in the show, from the late 1960s. Kente became part of African-American culture in the U.S.—with everyone from Salt-N-Pepa wearing it on their kufi hats to people at graduations using it as stoles. There was this one particular kente that we loved. When Paola and I, in our non-knowledge of kente, first saw it, we were like, “Oh my goodness, it looks like emojis!” It had these fantastic heart shapes, large anthropomorphic and zoomorphic symbols on it of flora and fauna. They used to call it the Obama kente because the president of Ghana had worn it when Obama was visiting. We got in touch with the same person who created that kente, master weaver Tewobaabi, in a tiny village in Ghana, for a prototype for the exhibition. And though that kente did not actually have emojis, its designs kind of do the same. They are symbolic and each have different meanings. —Michelle Millar Fisher
I’m still heartbroken about the sock. I loved it. The idea started with the tube sock. But I’m not American and so I thought, What?! Michelle and I started veering into the idea of hygiene because we don’t touch upon it as much as we’d like to in the exhibition: how clothes work with odor, and sweat, and things like that. Socks are things that are really close to your body, and they don’t age that well, so they’re really hard to collect. So the fact that there were these institutions, like the Museum of London, that had these amazing examples from World War II that were really well preserved, I was blown away. But in the end we had to cut it from the checklist. One day, you’ll see our sock exhibition. —Anna Burckhardt