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Decades after the Museum of Modern Art staged its first fashion exhibit, and decades before it would hold another, the architecture and design curator Paola Antonelli started a list titled “Garments That Changed the World.” They were items of clothing that Antonelli felt were crucial to the history of modern design, and which were entirely missing from MoMA’s collection when she joined the museum in 1994.
That ambitious list is the backbone of MoMA’s second fashion-centric show ever, titled “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” Opening Sunday, it brings together 111 objects from around the world that represent major cultural and political moments of the last 100 years: Levi’s 501s, Dapper Dan’s logo-laden jackets, a burkini, a white Hanes T-shirt, Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls jersey, a Mao jacket, a pair of Spanx.
“It’s not about names, it’s not about styles, it’s about objects that stand in for whole periods or whole issues,” says Antonelli.
Take, for example, a red Champion hoodie from the ’80s, which is displayed by itself against a dark wall. The text below it explains the history of the hoodie: its inception in the 1930s as a garment designed to keep athletes warm, its prevalence on college campuses of the 1950s, its popularity in the hip-hop and skate communities, its adoption by tech CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg, and its rise as a symbol of racial injustice following the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012.
For each item, Antonelli and her team tried to choose the ultimate stereotype: a Ralph Lauren polo, a Swatch watch, a Patagonia fleece. Then they went and found examples or images of their archetypes, the original garment that gave birth to that icon. In certain cases, MoMA commissioned “prototypes” from contemporary designers, asking them to imagine what that item might look like in the future.
In one poignant case, Pyer Moss designer Kerby Jean-Raymond riffed on Pierre Cardin’s Cosmos collection from 1967, which envisioned clothing for a space-age future. Jean-Raymond’s “Aquos” outfit is prepared instead for a world of rising sea levels due to global warming. The look is a wetsuit and a flotation device.
Some of the garments on display will satisfy museumgoers who want to look at beautiful clothing, like an incandescent Richard Nicoll slip dress that glows like a jellyfish and a host of little black dresses from Chanel, Versace, Rick Owens, and Dior. But many are startling in their mundanity, a theme highlighted by their simple, almost scientific presentation on mannequins and under glass displays around the spacious gallery.
With this show, it’s impossible not to compare MoMA to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which, at least in New York, has come to define the art of hosting a fashion exhibit. The Met Costume Institute’s big shows, like 2011’s “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” and 2016’s “Manus x Machina,” combine arresting haute couture with elaborate environments and a celebrity-packed opening party.
Despite its breadth, “Is Fashion Modern?” is quiet in comparison. This serves its thesis, if not its marketability. Because of the gallery’s bright lighting, some pieces set under glass are hard to photograph well, meaning they’re difficult to Instagram.
If you think that documenting the museum experience is the death of culture, that’s fine, but fashion exhibits have proven to be a potent source of revenue for the Met. As of last year, “China: Through the Looking Glass” (2015) was the Costume Institute’s biggest show and the Met’s fifth most popular exhibit ever; “Manus x Machina” was the museum’s seventh most visited show.
MoMA is, however, likely to elicit engagement from visitors in the form of complaints that the curatorial team left out certain game-changing garments from the show. Antonelli says that she welcomes suggestions. Her team started with a list of roughly 400 pieces, debating the relative merits of white wedding dresses and hazmat suits. (Both were ultimately cut.)
High fashion can be a joy to look at, but the inclusion of items that many people regularly touch and see means that visitors might wind up rethinking the significance of their own clothing.
“The simplicity of these absolutely functional garments — that, because of history, become invested with so much power — is a marvel,” says Antonelli. “We want people to come into the exhibition recognizing that anything they wear, at any time, can be a symbol, and a symbol that is world-changing.”