MoMa’s “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” is a Clothing Time Capsule

Can you name 111 garments that changed the world? The Museum of Modern Art decided to turn this challenge into an exhibition entitled “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” to open on October 1 (through January 28). “Items” seeks mostly to highlight the “stereotype” of each familiar garment, meaning that which you would see if you close your eyes and thought about the object.

The 111 garments listed

The exhibition hews to the generic although there are outliers here and there, maybe indicative of NYC, in which the example is an elevated version of something utilitarian becoming high fashion — (think Prada rather than Jansport backpack).

More LBD’s including Mugler, Versace, Rick Owens

When presenting a few categories such as the Little Black Dress several examples are shown to include the various archetypes, shapes or evolution of the design species. Not to be missed: the creepy Little Black (Death) Dress prototype by Pia Interlandi which uses thermochromic ink to simulate touch.

Revlon Fire & Ice Lipstick

Other prototypes that hint at future designs made possible through technology, social dynamics, aesthetics, or political awareness include Lucy Jones’ Seated Pantyhose, designed for those who are wheelchair bound. These eradicate the need for the standing tug normally required when donning panty hose and are featured in the undergarment section along with an already existing modern feat of technology/engineering: the Wonderbra.

Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator, Glenn D. Lowry, Director

Tuesday morning’s press preview included a talk or conversation presented in the theatre with the Senior Curator of the Department of Architecture and Design Paola Antonelli and MoMA Director Glenn D. Lowry. I learned that there’s a good reason that I couldn’t recall another MoMA fashion exhibition (or to be more accurate “a design show that takes fashion as its focus”) — there hasn’t been one since 1944!

Chanel Evening Dress 1925-27, Charles Creed, Utility, Autumn 1942, Dior Two-Piece Evening Dress ca. 1950, Givenchy, 1968

“Every 70 years please come back for a fashion show,” quipped Lowry. The current exhibition’s title riffs off of that of architect and curator Bernard Rudofsky’s “Are Clothes Modern?” which dealt with the status of clothing standards in the waning era of World War II “when conventions were being questioned but old attitudes still prevailed” while it “sought to have the public reconsider their relationship with the clothes they wore, and with the designers and systems that produced those clothes.”

Stephen Burrows jumpsuit 1974, Richard Malone Jumpsuit Specimen 2017

“The term ‘Item’ really resonated with fashion people,” explained Antonelli on her choice for a one word moniker encompassing the idea of individual objects that stand for whole periods or segments of time in fashion history. “When I came to MoMA 23 years ago the museum owned no fashion except for an early-twentieth century Delphos dress by Mariano Fortuny, acquired in 1987.” For this exhibition, an international advisory committee was assembled including scholars, journalists and designers, the likes of editor/curator Penny Martin, designer Shayne Oliver, and Kim Hastreiter and Mickey Boardman of Paper Magazine.

Platforms A-Plenty

Antonelli spoke of cultural touchstones such as the humble hoodie — originally created in the 1930’s to keep athletes warm, which has since become fraught with social and political associations. “The wearer can have the false impression of being invisible while other people may perceive you as menacing. These articles become imbued with so much power. Anything that you wear can be powerful or can be a symbol,” the Milan native continued. “Even the three piece suit could be worn by a bodyguard while the guy (or girl) in the white t-shirt could be the “most dominant person in the room.”


Originally there were 99 items which eventually grew to 111, however the public is encouraged to add to the list by using the #ItemsMoMA. Incidentally, many people are convinced that several VIG’s (very important garments) were omitted judging by the crowd today. Walking through the exhibition of displayed, sometimes glass showcased prosaic normcore: the Dockers chino pant, Levi’s 501 jean, Gore-Tex parka, Woolrich plaid flannel shirt, Lacoste polo, Champion hoodie, Patagonia fleece, Hanes white tee, Bass loafers, Danskin leotard, Brooks Brothers oxford-cloth button down, black turtleneck, Ray Ban Aviator, Tevas, Havaianas flip flops, Olof Daughters clogs, graphic t-shirts, Dr. Martens, Swatch watches and a Fitbit, to rattle off just a few, gave me an eerie feeling. What if this was a gigantic time capsule to be opened by future Martians beamed down to Earth; this is how they’d discover the way people dressed and lived in the 20th and 21st centuries? Beam me up Scotty…there’s not a lot of interesting fashion here.

Yves Saint Laurent Le Smoking, Rudi Gernreich Unisex Project

The exhibition starts out strong with the aforementioned various incarnations of the LBD including examples from Chanel, Dior, Givenchy, Thierry Mugler, Arnold Scaasi. A Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche (1966) Le Smoking tuxedo evening suit stands next to two Rudi Gernreich Unisex Project (1970) knit jumpsuits. Fun fact: the first LBD was created long before Coco entered the scene — 15th century Spanish aristocracy wore black dresses produced through an expensive dye process to convey privilege and distinction.

Schott Motorcycle Jacket, Asher Levine Leather, Synthetics, LED Biker Jacket, Westwood-McLaren God Save The Queen T-Shirt

Another highlight is the “punkish” section with the Schott Perfecto leather biker jacket; the prototype Asher Levine leather, polymer, and LED’s glowing jacket (2017); leather pants, and Vivienne Westwood/ Malcolm McLaren screenprint “God Save the Queen” aka the Cecil Beaton photograph of Queen Elizabeth II irreverently shown with-a-safety pin-through-her-lip muslin tee. I’m not understanding the three different examples of black knit balaclavas and a Keffiyeh so much. Even surgical facemasks are being promoted as a fashion statement here — is that really a thing? Apparently so, as there’s a Zhijun Wang Sneaker Mask (2016) from the Yeezy Boost collection along for the ride.

Shift Dresses

The section of shift dresses shows how in opposition to the little black dress which shape shifts, here the silhouette never changes but the patterns and colors do. Selections are from varied designers: Hussein Chalayan, Helmut Lang, Lilly Pulitzer, Paco Rabanne, Anne Klein, Stella McCartney and a Harry Gordon paper Poster Dress of Bob Dylan.

Richard Nicoll, Optic Slip Dress 2017

Interestingly, in the down coat section there are doppelgangers to the Museum at FIT “Expedition” exhibition (which I just covered) including a Harper’s Bazaar (October 1938) photo of a model in the Charles James evening puffer featured (the real thing is at MFIT), as well as a modern version of the Norma Kamali sleeping bag coat in red (FIT’s is a vintage black one). Speaking of red — the juxtaposition of the A-POC Queen Textile (Issey Miyake) dress (APOC stands for “a piece of cloth”) which really does look regal across from the pedestrian red Champion hoodie (thank goodness it’s not the pretentious Vetements version) is an interesting contrast.

Donna Karan’s 1980’s Seven Easy Pieces Have Not Aged So Well

Other items of fashion interest which made the list? How about slip dresses, shirt dresses, jumpsuits, platform shoes, a collection of Margiela Tabi boots, a look from the 1994 Anglomania collection Kilt remade by Vivienne Westwood, a Birkin and other handbags, swimwear from the bikini to the burkini and Donna Karan’s Seven Easy Pieces concept meant to enable the ’80’s career woman wishing to dress appropriately for any occasion. News flash: everything is seriously dated in this collection save the black suede belt with the large sculptural gold buckle that I remember coveting and would still wear.

Dapper Dan Monogram Jackets

What someone at the Q&A termed “ghetto fashion” is represented by the Dapper Dan 1980’s Alpo Coat as well as a pair of enormous silver Door-knocker earrings.  Just about every ethnicity is featured from Kippah, to Kente cloth, from Hijab to Sari, from Salwar kameez to Cheongsam and from Guayabera to Dashiki.

Armani Suits.

Cultural appropriation is delineated here in how items migrate across communities or when objects born of the subculture are adapted by the mainstream without giving credit.   Also weighing in on the political scale, the athleisure or sports section features the jersey of someone who likes to keep a “low profile”  namely Colin Kaepernick.

With this exhibition MoMA declares fashion as an important art form and aims to show that they do not fear fashion anymore. Director Lowry noted that we all get dressed every day and make a statement (intentional or otherwise) about ourselves in doing so. “What we wear, writ large, is part of who we are and design affects who we are all the time,” explained Lowry.

So, which Items didn’t make the final cut? Those which ultimately got the boot according to Curatorial Assistant Michelle Millar Fisher include the wedding dress, the Hazmat suit and the sock. Come to think of it, socks deserve an exhibition all their own; particularly if someone can empirically determine which alternate dimension the mate to your favorite pair legs it off to on laundry day.

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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