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.

Credit:  Candace R. Arrington

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