A pair of Lululemon yoga pants from 1998 is currently on display at the Museum of Modern Art. There's also Calvin Klein briefs, Levi's 501s, a Prada backpack, Nike Air Force 1s and a 1980s-era plaid flannel shirt from the Woolrich archive. All of these pieces, in addition to so many more, are part of MoMA's new exhibit "Items: Is Fashion Modern?" in hopes that visitors will rethink a garment's past, present and future.
Opening to the public on Sunday, "Items" arrives more than 70 years since the museum's first and only other fashion-focused exhibition. In 1944, architect and curator Bernard Rudofsky posed a similar question with "Are Clothes Modern?" showcasing our relationship with mid-century clothing during the end of World War II. In 2017, senior curator Paola Antonelli widens the scope by spotlighting individual pieces and how their contributions towards culture and design have evolved over history and within society.
Although it's taken seven-plus decades for the MoMA to put fashion on display again, "Items" has been a work in progress since Antonelli was hired 23 years ago. With only one fashion piece in the museum's collection at the time — a donated Fortuny dress, its acquirement unknown — Antonelli, who hails from Milan, maintained a handwritten list called "Garments That Changed the World." Until it was curated to a catalog of 111 items, Antonelli's list had boasted over 400 garments.
"The simplicity of these absolutely functional garments — that because of history become invested with so much power — is a marvel," says Antonelli. "And we want people to come into the exhibition recognizing that anything that they wear anytime is, can be a symbol, and a symbol that is world-changing."
"Items" takes up the entire sixth floor of the MoMA with a whopping 350 (!) different fashion (and some beauty) objects on display. And while the exhibition is divided into different categories pertaining to fashion — status; appropriation; national identity; modesty, etc. — the items are loosely grouped together with no real rhyme or reason as to how visitors should explore the space. It's up to us to make our own connections and discoveries. In the "body and silhouette" section, which discusses the issue of size and image, a Wonderbra, Spanx and nylon stockings are placed alongside a YSL Touche Éclat highlighter pen. Although there could be plenty of other examples from fashion and beauty that help manipulate one's appearance — a corset or contour kit, maybe?
"It invites the public to continue [Paola's] list," says MoMA Director Glenn Lowry of the exbibit. "Here are the first 111 items to consider; there are presumably hundreds if not thousands more. I like that aspect that this is not a closed list, but rather an invitation to think about the way in which fashion is constructed."
Antonelli also wanted to push forward some of our most basic garments by commissioning select designers to create innovative prototypes for a few of the items. Lucy Jones, who specializes in designing for disabilities, created a pair of seated pantyhouse for wheelchair users. Japanese designers Verbal and Yoon produced a deconstructed version of the Cartier "Love" bracelet, while customizable apparel specialist Unmade presented its own take on the Breton shirt.
"It's not about the names, it's not about the styles," says Antonelli. "It's about objects that stand in for whole periods, for whole issues, so that was the declaration of intent." "Art of the In-Between," "China: Through the Looking Glass" or "Savage Beauty," this is not.
However, like any major exhibition, visitors must pass by the gift shop in order to make their way through the rest of the museum's offerings. In conjunction with "Items," the MoMA Design Store plans to release exclusive product, such as a New Era New York Yankees cap with a MoMA logo, a MoMA collegiate logo hoodie by Champion, as well as a reissue of the original 1937 Ray-Ban Aviator sunglasses, among others. The shop will offer more product in a series of drops throughout the length of the exhibit, which is slated to close on Jan. 28, 2018. Perhaps, after experiencing "Items," you just might look at your cap, hoodie or sunglasses in a totally different way.
See a sneak peek of MoMA's "Items: Is Fashion Modern?" in the gallery below. The exhibit will be open to the public on Oct. 1.