Is Fashion Modern? The MoMA Explores Fashion's Place in Society

The last time the MoMA mounted an exhibition exclusively about fashion was 1944, when Bernard Rudofsky raised the question, “Are Clothes Modern?”. Curators Paola Antonelli and Michelle Millar Fisher return to that question with exhibition “Items: Is Fashion Modern?”. The exhibition spans the entire sixth floor, and is made up of 111 items from the past century that have made an impact on the world and fashion.

So why now? Why the first fashion exhibition in over 70 years? Rudofsky’s original was a “prompt for the public of its day to reconsider their relationship with the clothes they wore, and with the designers and systems that produced those clothes.” Antonelli and Fisher acknowledge that a disconnect still exists between our clothing and who we are, and how our clothing is made and should be made in future. Diving deeper, Items is a discourse about modern design, which Antonelli argues--and this exhibition makes clear--is incomplete without fashion not only because it shares traits in common with other design forms like architecture, objects and digital artifacts, but also because of the medium’s profound and lasting social, cultural, political, and environmental impact.

Impressed upon my mind are specific exhibits that reflect headlines splashed across our screens everyday, and the historical and cultural origins from which others we see walking down the street emerge. We’ve taken the following examples directly from the exhibitions wall texts, and entered search terms in parentheses if you’d like to learn more about each real world topic on your own.

  • Garments enable us to move between identities. Rudi Gernreich’s Unisex Project (1970), on the other hand, disregarded biological difference to focus on future emancipation and possibility, offering fluidity with its nonbinary approach to gender and deliberate subversion of dress conventions. (Search term: Gender Identity 2017)
  • Modesty has many sartorial expressions. It can be a subjective and personal choice manifested in garments that draw attention away from the body by shielding parts or all of it from external gazes (even though, ironically, such deflection sometimes results in increased and unwanted scrutiny). Or it can be the law of the land, codified in religious texts or secular norms, and its modulation can be variously prescribed and fiercely enforced (from Egypt to Saudi Arabia to France and beyond). Clothes are a powerful way to convey modesty, and some garments (such as the hijab) and dress rules (regarding the length of sleeves and skirts, for instance) can communicate a particular social, religious, or political stance. Modesty can be a positive guide for getting dressed; it can also restrict choice, ensure deference, or suggest morality and atonement. There is no single yardstick for a modest dress code: what one person prefers might be uncomfortable or unacceptable to another. In its more disturbing incarnations, the notion of modesty is used to instigate or validate violence. Debates about modesty are frequently coded along gender lines. For example, scholar Reina Lewis notes that although instructions concerning religious dress and behavior “logically require modesty from both genders, it is most often women who have borne the burden,” while historian Eric Silverman points out that in Judaism, “men who violate tzniut [modesty or privacy] insult God. . . . By contrast, immodest women endanger men.” (Search term: Modesty Dress Culture Fanaticism)
  • Existenzmaximum, a term coined in the last decade, describes the metaphysical personal spaces created by items of technology and clothing that function as portable cocoons. The Walkman, introduced in 1978, is an example of a device that can expand our private space well beyond the volume occupied by our physical self, as are iPods and other portable players, and earbuds and headsets of all kinds, which are often also deliberate fashion choices. Analog items like surgical masks, sunglasses, hoodies, and baseball caps offer practical protection and envelop the body in a safe bubble—as impalpable as it is real—and abstract it from the social sphere. However, they also form barriers around key parts of our bodies—expressive areas like the eyes and mouth, or sensory and communicative areas like the ears—sealing them off and giving us the illusion of being impenetrable. While they might help us hide and detach, their very purpose can call negative attention to those who wear them, designating them as “other.” (Search term: NPR Tragedy Gives The Hoodie A Whole New Meaning)

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Cashmere Hoodie Sweatshirt

  • Garments can be powerful bearers of cultural meaning. Kente, for instance, a traditional cloth that originated in West Africa, took on new associations when Ghana became the first sub-Saharan country to gain independence from colonial rule in 1957. Worn by that country’s newly elected political leaders, it became a fashionable symbol of emancipation and nascent national identity, and of Pan-Africanism worldwide....enjoyed rich afterlives in diasporic contexts and [has] also been embraced by high fashion, demonstrating that the meaning of what we wear is always subject to the nuances of its context and deployment. (Search term: Cultural Meaning Clothing)

Vietnamese Áo dài dress a fashionable symbol of emancipation and nascent national identity

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Áo dài

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White Áo Dài

  • Craftsmanship and material culture proudly inform items that have come to represent whole regions of the world and which rely on localized skills prized as national treasures and jealously guarded. From the carefully calibrated design, screenprinting, and hemming of a Hermès scarf to the painstaking process of producing a Kashmiri pashmina shawl—all the way from shearing the wool to embroidering it—to the fine weave of guayabera linen, artisanship acts as a metaphor for accumulated knowledge and concretized civilization and provides a platform for both public pageantry and personal nostalgia. (Search term: Artisanal Fashion Tradition)

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SOÜF Hand Carved Sustainable Cedar Wood Clutch Purse Made by Artisans in El Salvador

SOÜF Hand Carved Sustainable Cedar Wood Clutch Purse available to shop at

  • The white T-shirt also allows us to interrogate the lopsided power relations that are part of its DNA, including those that shaped the cotton industry, built on the backs of enslaved people in this country and beyond; the labor involved in its cutting and sewing; and its environmental footprint throughout its life cycle. (Search term: White t-shirt Linked to Slave Labor)
  • Designer Yohji Yamamoto once declared, “The sports world and technology seek for necessity, practicality, or functionality while fashion is seeking the opposite.” Interestingly, it was Yamamoto’s own Y-3 line—a collaboration with Adidas—that helped bridge these worlds and prompted the creation of a term that has become commonplace: athleisure. (Search terms: Why Women Are Wearing Leggings in the Street. What is Athleisure?)

Most important to us at Uncoverd is that outside the exhibition space, fashion eschews the ephemeral and fantastical for more meaningful dialogue from multiple perspectives--a rooted existence in peoples, traditions, ways of life, global needs, challenges, and struggles. That is modernity.

As curators consider fashion’s future it is inextricably linked to reality, specifically fashion’s consequences. Currently, the industry marginalizes garment workers and suppliers, pollutes waterways and soil, cruelly mistreats animals to meet and stoke demand for fashion pieces that often go to waste, whether they make it into your closet or not. 30 commissioned pieces that blend seamlessly with their source of inspiration, create a linear line of the past, present, and future of each, a configuration that suggests a push towards innovation, and withdrawal from past production practices.

I attended a talk where the founders of Modern Meadow and Unmade, two contributors to the MoMA’s exploration of fashion’s future within Items, discussed how their breakthrough technologies are revamping the fashion industry for a more sustainable future. Both companies work to limit waste.

Modern Meadow approaches this problem by eliminating the need for animal skins; the company grows leather from living collagen cells instead of animals themselves. Design and engineering technology allows Modern Meadow to deliver structural and aesthetic properties requested. After which, their product is tanned and finished through an efficient, ecologically mindful process to give the material its final character. Their work is a union of biology and fashion, or biofabrication. Andras Forgacs, CEO of Modern Meadow, said “biology is entering the consumer realm in a new way,” affecting how, “efficiently and responsibly we can make things.”

Unmade uses a different approach; it remodels the industry’s supply chain to decrease waste. Between fast fashion (think new items produced every two weeks like at Zara) and ready-to-wear clothes (new items every 6 months like most designer brands we can name), over 26 billion pounds of clothing and textiles are thrown away each year. Unmade places power in the consumer’s hand. The consumer designs and gets what he or she wants, pays and then production begins. Producing on-demand personalizations (with tech integrations between brand and manufacturer that facilitates real time communication on individual spec changes per garment) presumably reduces waste exponentially. What happens to jobs is unclear to us. However, it is folly to fight against technology. And what about creativity? It’s arguable that innovation breeds creativity; see their technology at work to judge for yourself. We see this happy pairing in medicine, sports, defense, media, energy and more. Why not in today’s fashion industry when its promise is a sustainable future? According to Forgacs, what we’re watching right now is “history”.

The Uncoverd Sustainability Guide is a short read with simple tips that empower you to make a positive impact on the environment with the items in your closet plus ways to profit from them, and to make informed decisions at the checkout counter.

(click the image to get your free sustainability guide)

Uncoverd Sustainability Guide

If I gleaned anything from the talk, it’s that power rests in consumers’ hands. Companies will only do what their consumers want. Do you want change that will ensure our garments are made by people paid a fair wage working under safe conditions? That our waterways are clean for fish (that lands on your plate), and other organisms living in them? That animals are not exploited without necessity? Do you want fewer tons of fabric scraps left on the cutting room floor likely to go to a landfill? Or that brands and manufacturers stop making clothing with toxic chemicals that leach into your skin and harm you? You must tell them. And with social media booming, there has been no better or easier time to send a cry (read direct message, post, or comment) calling for change. Let the companies you support know exactly what you want and how you want it, so that these innovative technologies will also become available for mass consumption. These innovations are currently only available to luxury brands because of costs, but with scale comes economies and a better world for all.

What more can you do now? Implement these quick and simple tips with the items hanging in your closet. Plus, here are ways to profit from your dresses, tops, pants, etc you hardly wear. And make smarter decisions as you’re browsing items or sashaying towards the checkout counter.

Fashion is now being recognized by curators, writers, and researchers outside its very core—as well as by designers and by the people who Instagram it, dream of it, borrow it, buy it, wear it, and monetize it—as the gold mine it has always been: an intersectional, global, cultural, social, and political phenomenon. - Antonelli

What’s your view of fashion? How do you define modernity?

If any of these topics interest you, or you need to entertain visiting family members and friends take a trip to the MoMA's Items: Is Fashion Modern? on view through January 28th. Emily Spivack, an artist in collaboration with the museum, will present an archive of clothing worn to the MoMA exploring what people wore to the exhibition and what that says about fashion today, so wear your Uncoverd best. And if you want to actively participate, The People’s Studio is hosting workshops where visitors can deconstruct, discuss, and reimagine clothes. Send a text message with a photo or description of what you wore to the museum!

Green Quilted Silk Jacket

Handwoven and Beaded Sweater Coat

Knowing what you know now, how do you regard items hanging in your closet? How will you explore fashion today and going forward? Join us on our facebook page for a live message from our creative director about this exhibition on Sunday, Jan 14th at 1 PM.  Our images and video from the exhibit will be posted to our facebook page during the week starting on Jan 15th.

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