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In its first fashion exhibit in decades, MoMA highlights craft — and exposes the body as battleground


  • MoMA considers tattoos in "Items: Is Fashion Modern?" Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • Paola Antonelli is the Museum of Modern Art's senior curator in the Department of Architecture and Design and the museum's director of research and development.

  • Rei Kawakubo's 1997 "Body Meets Dress—Dress Meets Body" dress (Comme des Garçons) challenged ideas of beauty, normality, changeability and more. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • "When it comes to politically charged items, there are so many in the exhibition," said Paola Antonelli, the exhibition's curator. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • The sari is ageless and shapeless and can be endlessly transformed. It's one of the essentials. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • Issey Miyake and Fujiwara Dai's innovative "A–POC (A Piece of Clothing) Queen Textile" allows the customer to cut along the dotted lines for sleeve length, bias, neckline or hood, to create the desired garment. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • When Paul Poiret designed "Harem Pants" in the early 1900s, women could be arrested in New York and Paris for wearing pants. The Parisian bylaw requiring women to obtain permission from authorities before "dressing as men" was officially revoked in 2013. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • 111 items from around the globe that have changed the world over the last 100 years are on view in MoMA's fashion show. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • Elton John's silver lamé monogrammed platform boots are part of MoMA's first exploration of fashion in over 70 years. Photo: Adel Gorgy

High or low or not fashionable at all, worn by millions or just by millionaires, 111 garments that changed the world have been put together to tell a story about design, art and life as only the Museum of Modern Art can. “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” is the museum’s first exploration of fashion in over 70 years. It fills a whole floor of MoMA, and includes items of luxury and rarity, and others so ubiquitous or dated they’re all but forgotten. Some don’t even exist yet, except as prototypes commissioned by the museum and imagined by contemporary designers and artists. The curatorial team led by Paola Antonelli and including Michelle Millar Fisher, Stephanie Kramer, Anna Burckhardt and Kristina Parsons nominated, debated and defended garments from the past 100 years from all over the world and came up with a group that speaks to larger issues than what we wear. Antonelli discussed the show and the works on display with us, in a conversation edited for length and clarity.

Did you set out to make a fashion exhibition unlike any other? Because it is.

It’s the fashion exhibition that I and we could do, in the sense that this museum doesn’t have a tradition of fashion, but it has a strong tradition of design. So what we did is try to approach fashion from the viewpoint of design.... About 13 years ago, I started keeping this list called “garments that changed the world” and the list was made up of, of course, the white T-shirt, Levi’s 501 jeans, Converse sneakers. It’s the list that you would make also.

One of the strong statements that’s made in the exhibition is about women’s bodies, in particular, being a battleground for culture wars.

That is a theme that recurs many times in the exhibition, the theme of the body being a battleground.... It’s especially strong in the area about modesty. There is a juxtaposition in the exhibition that’s very powerful. It’s between the bikini and the burkini. They’re next to each other, and the reason for that is because they represent two different instances of attempts to control female bodies. In this case, we’re not talking about the imposition of the item unto and of itself, but rather legislation around it.

You can find pictures of the same beach in France where, in the 1950s, the police are stopping the woman wearing a bikini, and last year the woman wearing the burkini.... Whatever we think about the ideology behind it, it is, once again, female bodies that are the locus of control.

Talking about the way many of these items became weapons in culture wars, is there an item in the exhibition that you think has affected a noticeable change in the world?

When it comes to politically charged items, there are so many in the exhibition, some really explicit like the hoodie or like Colin Kaepernick’s jersey, and some others, instead, that are subtler like the Basque beret. Of course you can also talk about platform shoes in political terms, not to mention headgear and headwraps. There’s a lot. It’s pretty much spread around.

You place garments made by world-famous designers next to ones made by anonymous craftspeople and factory workers. What kinds of assumptions are you challenging by doing that?

Fashion is a system. It’s a system that’s cultural. It’s industrial. It’s about labor. It’s also about how we react as citizens. It’s important to make sure that people see that there is a connection between parts of the system that might seem so distant, for instance high-fashion and everyday wear.

There are several cutting-edge commissioned pieces in the show. How did that come about, and are there any that might make it out of galleries and into real world use?

There are several pieces that could become reality. I have a feeling that the modular maternity dress, or the pantyhose for people in wheelchairs could.... As to how it came about, I’ve been doing that in many exhibitions, since the beginning. I think it’s important.

This museum has power. It’s a wonderful thing. It has the power to give young designers visibility. It has the power to influence behavior of people who come to see the shows. And sometimes, it has the power also to propose new ways of thinking about different items.... We wanted to really give life to that adjective that’s in the subtitle: modern. And modern is about pushing things forward.

What would you like to tell people about the show?

We also have a massive online course that is completely free, and we’re doing social media campaigns. Bruce Lee’s daughter launched a challenge on Instagram where people are invited to take pictures of themselves or other people in track suits and submit them with the #itemsMOMA hashtag. We’re really trying to reach as wide an audience as possible in as many ways as possible, because we believe that we can prompt people to look at what they wear in a more critical, more responsible and aware, and more “woke” way

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