Items: Is Fashion Modern? — a just-announced exhibition that will bring together Nikes, 501s, kimonos, and more — explores a field of design largely avoided by the institution: fashion.
Though fashion-focused museum exhibitions have drawn record crowds (the audience Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty's drew to the Met Museum was out-massed only by China: Through the Looking Glass) one institution has chosen not to mount similarly major exhibitions relating to clothing design: the Museum of Modern Art.
"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," wrote the institution's Senior Curator of Architecture and Design, Paola Antonelli, in a blog post yesterday — perhaps forgetting that archival Hussein Chalayan and Eckhaus Latta collections have been incorporated in MoMA shows within the past year.
Nevertheless, the storied New York museum will explore fashion design in its just announced exhibition Items: Is Fashion Modern?, a landmark show opening in December 2017. Items will confront the past, present, and future of 99 fashion objects — from Levi's 501s and Little Black Dresses to kippahs and keffiyehs — through varied sociopolitical prisms.
The show will examine these items across three tiers: archetype (contextual materials that trace its development through history), stereotype (the incarnation of the item most representative of its significance), and in some cases, a prototype (a new commission of the item). "For example," Antonelli writes, "if Diane von Furstenberg's 1974 wrap dress represents the stereotype of this design form in the 20th century, then Items will extrapolate backwards in time through examples such as Charles James's 1932 Taxi Dress, all the way to the archetype of the kimono." If, in the course of exhibition research, a new type of the same item "[emerges] as ripe for a redesign or was identified as a potential vessel for technological, formal, economic, or social transformation," the Museum will commission a new prototype of that item to incorporate within Items.
On May 15 and 16 of this year, the Museum will host a two-day event gathering key designers, curators, critics, scholars, activists, and entrepreneurs to ignite its first external research discussions. A panel discussion regarding how the designs we wear shape both ourselves and our surroundings will be followed by an abecedarium, in which 26 iconic garments — one for each letter of the alphabet — will be examined in seven-minute presentations, beginning with "Air," by Tinker Hatfield, iconic sneaker designer and VP Creative Concepts at Nike.
Pyer Moss founder Kerby Jean Raymond will join activist (and John Waters-approved Baltimore mayoral candidate) DeRay McKesson to discuss H for "Hoodie." Slow and Steady Wins the Race designer Mary Ping — whose pieces were incorporated in this year's iteration of MoMA PS1' Greater New York — and sustainability consultant Carmen Artigas will consider the colliding issues of labor, gender, and economics in R for "Rana Plaza." These gatherings will be live streamed on MoMA's website.
"Driven first and foremost by objects, not designers," Items' release concludes in what ironically sounds like Maison Martin Margiela's mission statement, "the exhibition considers the many relationships between fashion and functionality, cultural etiquettes, aesthetics, politics, labor, identities, economies, and technology."
Text Emily Manning
Photography Klaus Maertens. Doc Martens. Classic Airwear introduced in 1960. Photo by Melanie Levi. Some rights reserved. Used through Creative Commons.