Is Fashion Modern?, is the question the Museum of Modern Art's new exhibition asks. It's a weird, perhaps confusing, question, for sure — a play on the name of the last fashion exhibit the museum held in 1944 titled Are Clothes Modern? — and one that isn’t exactly answered by the show. But that's totally fine.
It’s weird to think that the MoMA, a museum established for “encouraging and developing the study of modern arts and the application of such arts to (…) practical life” has never really pursued fashion as one of its core disciplines. (The reasoning behind that is probably a topic for another essay). Its permanent collection includes only a handful of fashion items — among them are a white T-shirt, a pleated Fortuny gown, a pair of Levi’s 501’s, and Issey Miyake’s A-POC Queen Textile. (The latter is truly fantastic to see in person).
But this show isn’t about the fantastical items that try to convince the viewer to think of “fashion as art.” If anything, it provides a modern history of civilization as seen through the lens of fashion.
Through the 10 little black dresses on display, one can slowly see women’s history unfolding. There's Coco Chanel’s 1920s evening dress, a loose shift dress signaling women’s slow liberation from the corset and from which the concept of the “little black dress” was born; there's Thierry Mugler’s femme fatale version from 1981 — all exploded shoulders and cinched waists and an emphasis on the breasts; and there's a version by Rick Owens from his spring 2014 collection, which featured an entirely African American step team as its models. It’s not only an evolution of women’s fashion, but an evolution of representation of bodies, of culture, of ways of life.
Beyond the so-called “high-fashion” garments are items that are truly landmarks of our modern world. We see the graphic tee in its most iconic iterations: The I <3 NEW YORK design by Milton Glaser (which, of course, went to have an added meaning after the terrorist attacks of September 11); Black Flag’s four bar logo, an important emblem of the punk movement that has since found a second life on the internet through meme culture; a THE FUTURE IS FEMALE top, which will inevitably come to represent this post-Trump moment in time; and the SILENCE=DEATH design with the pink triangle, an important emblem of the fight against AIDS and AIDS stigma in the 1990s.
There are do-rags next to turbans, a keffiyeh and balaclava next to leather pants, and Dr. Martens. Fanny packs, a Juicy Couture sweatsuit, a Colin Kaepernick jersey, Geri Halliwell’s red platform sneakers, and the white Calvin Klein slip dress immortalized in Clueless. For those who think fashion is superfluous and useless, what will be the most shocking is how much meaning we can extract from a single item, whether it’s the capri pants Mary Tyler Moore wore while revolutionizing the role of the housewife on the Dick Van Dyke Show, or the turtleneck as worn by both Apple cofounder Steve Jobs and activist Angela Davis.
It's not just clothes that fill the show, either. The museum's broad definition of fashion includes acrylic nails and nail art, sun block, Revlon’s Fire & Ice red lipstick, surgical masks, and even an original Sony Walkman. While these feel a little out of place, they make sense in therms of the larger narrative at play. The show notes talk about “existensminimum,” an architectural concept of the “minimum spacial requirements for domestic subsistence,” and “existenzmaximum,” a term coined in the last decade as a response to it that descries the “metaphysical personal spaces created by items of technology and clothing that function as portable cocoons.” We like to think the future is very much about portable cocoons, but wonder: Should the iPhone have been included in the show? Sure, it’s not a piece of clothing, but aren't apps an important part of developing and maintaining our current personal style?
Walking through the exhibition, figuring out which items weren’t included becomes almost as interesting as looking at what’s actually there. The curators make a point to say the show is by no means comprehensive, and they invite viewers to include their own personal suggestions through social media. It’s an interesting way to think about our own personal histories, and although we may never know whether fashion is — or isn’t — modern, we know that it’s relevant. Fashion tells our stories, and as long as we keep wearing what we are wearing, the stories will continue to be told. In that way, fashion is both timeless and ephemeral — truly an extension of what it means to be human.