Preview: "Items: Is Fashion Modern?" at MoMA

Of those questions that grip the theoretically inclined among cultural actors, none seems more stubbornly set than that of what does (and, more contentiously, doesn’t) qualify as art. Conventional divisions have long focused on functionality—that thin, tense line between efficacy and utility—but in recent years, it’s become something of a trend for major museums to toe that boundary by mounting exhibitions centered on pop music, video games and, most pronouncedly, fashion, with notable shows on Iris van Herpen (High Museum, Atlanta), Isaac Mizrahi (Jewish Museum, New York), and the Metropolitan Museum’s yearly Costume Institute blockbusters each raising similar questions as to what distinguishes fashion, what constitutes art, and where the two might convene.

In October, MoMA will join the fold by mounting “Items: Is Fashion Modern?,” the museum’s first dress-focused show since 1944. In announcing the exhibition, curator Paola Antonelli acknowleged MoMA’s reticence in embracing the sartorial: “Historically, the museum has deliberately chosen not to engage with fashion in its galleries or its repositories, wary of those most anti-modern terms with which it is often derided: ephemeral, seasonal, faddish.” To sidestep these misgivings, “Items” clarifies its intentions from the outset: pointedly, this is a show about “wearable objects” instead of attire, “fashion” rather than clothing, “modernity” as opposed to modernism. More than a mere fashion show, “Items” is an academically curious (if not overtly critical) look at how garment design has shaped contemporary society, in every sense of that verb.

The exhibition’s questioning subtitle reprises that of Bernard Rudofsky’s seminal MoMA show, “Are Clothes Modern?,” which focused on then-changing mid-century fits. “Items” extends that project’s central conceits by looking beyond form to explore fashion’s larger role in today’s global culture, highlighting its modes of design, manufacturing, marketing and distribution. Less a themed show than an historical survey, “Items” collects nearly 350 articles representing 111 paragons of style, the selection ranging from Levi’s 501s to the Little Black Dress, hijabs to hoodies, Dr. Martens to door-knockers. Loosely arranged by leitmotif (e.g., “the body & silhouette,” “fashion & athleticism”), the exhibition aims to treat style as scholarship, using contextual materials (text, videos, images, interviews) to offer an ethnographic look at fashion’s systemic role in the past century’s labor, economics, politics and pop culture. The resulting presentation is something of a paraodox: while the variety and sheer quantity of designs on view is immersive, even overwhelming, it becomes quickly apparent that these objects aren’t so much a locus as a lens, vehicles for broader discussions. Privileging design over designers–and, in turn, effect over design–the exhibition is an exercise in sociology as much as aesthetics: object-centered, but outwardly focused.

In the end, “Items” argues for fashion’s legitimacy as a central facet of modern contemporary design, deserving a place in both museum collections and broader discourse. Left hazy, however, is whether the museum might comfortably afford it the status of art. That may be just as well: there’s no reason fashion should need or want the label in the first place—and besides, when it comes to addressing that perennial question, one finds no better reply than “It all depends.” Still, to be presented with work that’s variably decorative and didactic, era-specific and enduring, personal statement and social looking glass—that serves, in Antonelli’s words, as “a profound and charged tool for flaunting status, allegiance, and identity”? Sounds like art to me.

Originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of KALEIDOSCOPE Magazine