MoMA: Is Fashion Modern?

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is currently hosting the exhibit, “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” So, what is modern? Back in 1944, the MoMA asked, in an exhibition titled, Is Clothing Modern? in the hope of inspiring museumgoers to, “reconsider their relationship with the clothing they wore.” Today, MoMA asks: Is fashion modern? to provoke thought about the world’s relationship with fashion and to examine how and why it is made. In this exhibition, we see fashion born out of creativity and necessity; created by man and machine. The museum’s elevation of both the evening gown and the flip flop illustrates society’s multifaceted relationship with fashion, clothing, and art.

The curators walk you through the history of fashion, using fashion as a lens through which to view and analyze culture and society. Upon entering, I was pleasantly surprised. The galleries, sparsely but carefully filled, teased visitors with vivid colors, sounds, textures, and interactive displays. The exhibit progresses chronologically and also practically, by starting with base layers like undergarments, switching to classics like the little black dress, then working toward wardrobe fundamentals such as pants and later on, accessories.

Underwear starts out not to be a simple thing. Brassieres, stockings, and then jumpsuits pique visitors to contemplate form, function, and aesthetic. Subsequently, the exhibition moves to khakis, trousers, and collared shirts. This casual wear showcase also highlights how pants have evolved for women. With images of a pants-clad Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Mary Tyler Moore in capris on the Dick Van Dyke Show in the 60’s, the exhibit’s wall labels provide gender-charged commentary on how pant suits became socially acceptable for women.

The exhibit moves forward to a survey of the quintessential little black dress. Just within the exploration of the little black dress, one can see the evolution of fabrics, design, class, and social custom. This collection contains a range of dresses from Christian Dior to Thierry Mugler; starting with a modest Chanel evening dress from 1925 and ending with the controversial, close-fitting Versace cocktail dress worn by Elizabeth Hurley in 1994. The exhibit even highlights the relationship between technology and fashion by including a 3-D printed dress designed via a form of classical mechanics and motion called, kinematics.

Next, fashion is studied as an extension of culture. The collection exalts prints, fabrics, and silhouettes from all over the world, showcasing an anthology of Indian saris, Cuban guayaberas, Ghanian gowns, Brazilian jumpers, and Dashikis inspired by Nigerian prints, yet made right in Harlem.

Flanking one side of the exhibition is a spotlight on men’s suits. The stylistic progression goes from the zoot suit to the power suit, and even a double-breasted pant suit by Ralph Lauren for women. The wide range of tailoring, fabric, and shape is also a reflection on style, age, and class.

After covering each major piece of clothing, the exhibit moves on to highlight accessories. What some may consider superfluous or merely decorative additions, the accessories prove to be staples on their own. This collection looks at show-stopping shoes, handbags, hats, furs, and jewelry. The curators even established a small homage to the famous Hermès Birkin bag and Alexander McQueen’s platform armadillo boots, as worn by Lady Gaga.

But wait: there’s more. The exhibition has small fashion asides where one can find a biker jacket derivative made from polymers and LED lighting, and a textile designed through a computer-programed knitting machine.

“Items: Is Fashion Modern?” is indeed a modern take on fashion. After examining the entire 111 items, it is impossible to walk away uninspired and unprovoked. The curators do an excellent job of covering a wide range of subject matter, addressing the fundamentals of fashion, and examining where fashion is purely aesthetic and less functional, yet nonetheless enthralling and important. The exhibition demonstrates the complexity of fashion, as it can serve as adornment, a reflection of culture, or counterculture. If modern is to reflect the present and recent times, then yes, fashion is modern.

The Museum of Modern Art exhibit, “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” runs through January 28, 2018. https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/1638

Credit:  Candace R. Arrington

Candace Arrington works in Phillips Nizer’s Intellectual Property, Corporate, Fashion, and Entertainment Law Practices.


More Good Cheer

My partner Helene Freeman has offered her reflections on these pages about the recent Supreme Court opinion in Star Athletica, L. L. C. v. Varsity Brands, Inc., commonly known as the cheerleader uniform case.  Our Fashion Practice held a seminar recently for the industry where Helene provided further thoughts based on her posts, and I provided some practical considerations based on the court’s ruling.  Here is a brief summary.

The key point to remember is that the Supreme Court has greatly simplified how you look at cases of apparel and accessory copyrights and claimed infringement.  Because the case involved fabric patterns, I will limit my discussion to them, but there are broader implications, from belt buckles to furniture.  The bottom line is this: from now on, we will not examine the garment itself, just the surface design.  It no longer matters that, if you take stripes, chevrons and other familiar cheerleader-uniform patterns off the uniform, all you have left is a tennis dress–that is, something with a different function from a cheerleader uniform.  All we need do is look at the pattern on the fabric used to make the dress, as if it were unrolled from a bolt of cloth and laid flat.  In fact, it does not even matter if a cutter snips pieces from the bolt into a recognizable shape of a dress.  It’s the design of the fabric, and just that design, that matters from now on.

That possibly makes even more important the question that the Supreme Court sent back for consideration by the trial court: whether the design that was allegedly copied embodied enough original expression to warrant protection by copyright. The rule is that even modest creativity, when fixed in a creative work, is protectable by copyright.  (All you haiku writers, take heart.) Using neckties from several makers and nations as an example, I showed our conference attendees that original variations to familiar patterns (such as bees and starbursts) could be protectable.  Even if what results is a “thin” copyright, it is still enforceable.

That leads to a follow-on reflection: There being no central database of protected designs, and with fabric designs now being viewed as if standing alone, as some kind of sartorial Ding an sich (a “thing in itself” in Kantian philosophy), if you have a pattern that looks like it might be original, and if you intend to spend time and money using it to make clothing (or other products), now, more than ever, it is important that you seek copyright registration–and that you discuss your options with counsel. Because the cut of the cloth and claimed usefulness (as in, “Those look like the kind of stripes I would find on a cheerleader uniform.”) are now irrelevant for copyright purposes, you will have to undertake your analysis in a field of potential risk beyond that formed by the goods you are making.  Using cheerleader uniforms as an example once more: stripes and chevrons on those uniforms, if upheld as protectable by copyright, could, in theory, be infringed upon not merely by designs on competing uniforms but also by fabric designs on anything that is nonfunctional (such as a purely decorative wall hanging) or functional (such as neckties, carpets and sofas).

That brings us again to our favorite money-saving advice: discuss these issues with knowledgeable counsel before you invest your time and money.  In the law, that ounce of prevention is worth at least a ton of cure.

Credit: Alan Behr


In the Fitting Room with the Thieves

Shopping with Big Sunglasses Woman Keeping a Secret

Whether you call it shoplifting or shrinkage and the people tasked with stopping it the house detectives or the asset protection department, and regardless of what new technology you put into place, if you are a retailer, stealing is a problem that will never go away. When I was in high school, back in New Orleans, I worked weekends and summers at the department store my family owned and operated (and long since shuttered). I got to see firsthand the extent of the problem—which was harder to track in those days before electronic inventory controls. The manager of my department was arrested for stealing a pair of Mickey Mouse suspenders from the warehouse. He had been collared by the four-man security team brought in to replace the aging and quite ineffective store detective. During a big three-day sale taking place over a long summer weekend, as the junior and surely least valuable member of our sales team, I was relegated to sitting in the men’s fitting room, watching for thieves. All I got for my trouble was the chance to alert security to the customer who thought that the fitting room stall belonged in the men’s bathroom and had used it accordingly. That incentivized me to petition for repatriation to the sales floor and, just to be sure my position did not revert, I became the top sales person of my department during the next three-day sale.

Jump some years ahead, and now I find myself working with clients in retail on the law of asset protection. There was the time I had to work with the manager and assistant manager of one department store branch that was being sued for assault and false imprisonment by an alleged shoplifter who claimed he had been injured in his apprehension. The plaintiff appeared at the first hearing on crutches, and justice being as slow as it is, by the time the second hearing came around, he was practically pole vaulting with the things, which his lawyer, who could now hardly catch up with him, obviously told him to keep using in an effort to garner sympathy and a favorable settlement.

It was frustrating to our client, but none of that has changed much. You still need to be sure that you work with counsel to know what you can and cannot do in pursuing, approaching and ultimately challenging a suspected shoplifter. There are rules about that, and they vary from state to state. Just as an example, in New York you need to show that the suspect took possession of the item with an intention to make off with it. If you are found purposefully trying to sneak out a T-shirt by wearing it, give your lawyer a call; but if you tuck the T-shirt under your arm while paying for something else and mistakenly head out with it, you are guilty only of absentmindedness.

As long as retailers work very hard to create demand for what they sell, and as long as objects of desire hang and lie in public view, shoplifting will be a problem. As with all other problems that are certain to occur, it is always best to have policies and procedures in place and to make sure that the individuals charged with being the first line of defense—the sales staff—are thoroughly briefed on what to do. It is prudent to have counsel and the security team conduct periodic joint seminars with sales and security personnel. As with everything else in the law, the proverbial ounce of prevention will alleviate the need for the more than typically expensive, when it comes to litigation, pound of cure.

Credit: Alan Behr


A Man’s Moment

Ferragamo-Loafer-Black

Designers have been famously cautious not to offend men’s perceptions about masculinity. The old axiom that men will not buy clothes bearing the names of women led to some novel solutions. Jhane Barnes was born Jane Barnes, but by the time men had figured that out, they were sold on her clothes—even the many who assumed from the name that they were wearing clothes designed by a man. Kate Spade’s line for men came out as Jack Spade.

Then there are the brands that started for women and have migrated successfully to selling to men. Salvatore Ferragamo may have built a reputation as the shoemaker to the women of Hollywood, but my wife’s devotion to Salvatore Ferragamo handbags is mirrored by my policy that all my business shoes come in red boxes.

When it comes to individual styles, however, the crossover path is not always easy. Late in the last century, women started wearing fitted tights. That never caught on with men, even those with fantasies of playing Robin Hood. There was some initial hesitation by men, but after women had given up on stockings and started wearing beach sandals (flip-flops) around town and just going barefoot at home, men eventually followed along. I bought my first pair of flip-flops since my age was in single digits, and no sooner did I wear them out of my building, on a late-night milk errand, than I caught my doorman trying to do his best not to stare at my toes. It was a hot night and those toes did feel rather nicely chilled by the milk fridge’s chill, so I could see that the comfy factor was indeed in play. But at the end of the day, I just have to go with the obvious: light and delicate things like thong sandals may look correct on women—but on guys: you know, those black Ferragamo loafers I am never without are looking better than ever.

Credit: Alan Behr

Photo Credit: Salvatore Ferragamo

See previously published related posts:


Many Happy Returns

Final-Sale-Sign

Over the years, retailers have liberalized their returns policies. I have been offered thirty days, ninety days, sometimes one hundred eighty days in which to receive forgiveness if I should change my mind. I have even been quietly assured that, if I sign up as a preferred customer, the returns privilege is open-ended, which I suppose means that you can bring back your bar mitzvah suit after you wear it a second time for your retirement party (as long as you have the receipt). Even if formal policy says no to a return, it may simply be ignored if you are polite about it and willing to accept a store credit as a compromise.

In part to soften customer concerns about the risks of buying online, retailers have made buying from the Internet into a shop at home service, making returns as easy as putting the product back into the box, sticking on a return label and sending it back from whence it came—sometimes at no additional cost. (Shoe purchases seem to be particularly blessed in that way.)

When the goods come from a boots-on-the-ground shopping experience, customers are increasingly becoming their own shop at home services, scooping up whatever looks promising (sometimes in alternative sizes and colors) and making final purchase decisions in the privacy of their own bedrooms. The result of all this back and forth is that is that, depending on the category, returns can equal as much as forty percent of a retailer’s sales—perhaps even more in seasonal spikes.

When an item is marked “final sale,” however, the retailer is saying: “I’ve had enough of all that; I really want this one to move; here it is at a very good price I would never otherwise accept; now take it and don’t ever let me see it again.” We can all understand why a no-returns policy makes sense for underwear. But consider this as well: every luxury retailer has stories about evening gowns returned the day after a well-publicized big event, fragrant with perfume. For the same reason, it is understandable why a jeweler would make returns difficult or even impossible—to avoid, that is, turning into a free lending library for expensive necklaces and bracelets.

So by all means, take advantage of final sale offers. (By definition, it is your last chance to buy the item anyway.) But keep in mind that there is no turning back when you do. Your moment as your own style consultant has come: if you buy it, you own it, so make sure you like it at point of sale.

A special, final and heartfelt warning: if you are a guy with a wife or girlfriend who examines what you wear as if your reputation and hers depended on it (How, you may ask, would I know of such a guy?), you had better bring her along, just to be sure. If she first sees it when you bring it home and on the spot offers an opinion along the lines of, “What were you thinking? Take that thing back!” it is no time for your response to start with, “Uh…”

Credit: Alan Behr


The Frostbite Award

PhotoPin-BlackFlipFlops

Each year, as winter approaches, I prepare for a presentation—solely in my own mind—of the Frostbite Award. That is the imaginary award that I give to the last person seen wearing flip flops in the course of a given autumn/winter season. Flip flops as working or commuting footwear have always been something of a mystery to me. Flip flops are, after all, beach sandals, but as urban footwear, the flip flop trend has had formidable staying power far north of the Tropic of Cancer. In spring/summer, I assume it is all about comfort, but how does that explain the continued presence of urban flip flops as the days shorten, the leaves fall, and even as the snows arrive? Only the recipient of the Annual Frostbite Award knows for sure—that brave, hearty urbanite who freezes from their toes to their heels in the name of style. We can only admire their perseverance.

Credit:  Alan Behr

Photo Credit: placeboe (Creative Commons)