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What MoMA Doesn’t Get About Fashion

A sweeping new show is a limp defense of clothing design's place in the art world.

Courtesy of MoMA/Shutterstock/SFIO CRACHO

Items: Is Fashion Modern?, the first fashion exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art since 1944, constitutes an enormous, flawed argument for the inclusion of clothing design in MoMA’s archive. It pulls together 111 different pieces—mostly clothing but some accessories—that have been influential over the past century and more. (The show’s inscrutable title is a play on the 1944 MoMA exhibition Are Clothes Modern?, put together by curator and erstwhile sandal designer Bernard Rudofsky.) There are Levis, a white T-shirt, the cheongsam, platform shoes, the slip dress, kente cloth. Some of the items, like the Armani suits, are thrilling to see up close because the textiles are so ravishing, their construction so evidently skilled. But in the end MoMA gives us a whole floor full of clothes that feels totally empty.

The exhibition is a series of cavernous rooms containing identical mannequins holding individual articles of clothing and almost nothing else. According to the show’s literature, the vitrines display the clothes according to three “tiers”: archetype, stereotype, and prototype. The classical version of each garment is represented by the stereotype, which is then contextualized by accompanying materials (wall texts and so on) to convey a sense of the historical archetype. Then, for some of the clothes, a “prototype” version is exhibited, too: a design meant to encourage new innovations.

Unfortunately, none of that is available for the viewer to understand. We see three items in a row. And the vast scope of the show means that there is not enough space made for the historical archetype. We are thus largely left with stereotypes of objects that are already familiar to us. The attempt at universality flattens the unique history of each item into a banal set of first principles, namely that fashion “touches everyone, everywhere.” But this tells us little about how clothing design works, or why it is important. It makes for a limp survey, made all the more frustrating by the great ideas hiding in its uninspired execution.

The overarching and laudable purpose of the show is to establish fashion as a part of modern design. In her essay accompanying the exhibition, curator Paola Antonelli recalls Philip Johnson, the first director of MoMA’s department of architecture, arguing that fashion, “bound as it was to seasonal rhythms and compulsory stylistic rebirths, was considered ephemeral and thus antithetical to the ideals of modernism—timelessness above all.” Antonelli runs through a series of possible further reasons why fashion has been so overlooked. Like film, fashion is made grubby by its association with consumerism. It’s also associated with women, democratic access, frivolity, and vulgarity, all things that, at one time or another, have been anathema to big museums. In her essay, Antonelli makes an excellent argument for clothing design’s inclusion in the “timeless”: It is a condition of existence, a basic need that can still be future-oriented, technologically-minded, preserving of history, and so on.

So why does the exhibition itself flounder? The list of items is extraordinarily partial for a show that wants to be representative of a whole art form. It is roughly New York-centric. It is lamely contemporary. There’s a Kaepernick jersey in there, for example. The Little Black Dress section contains a Versace piece that is only famous for once being worn by Elizabeth Hurley. The list is “hardly exhaustive,” Antonelli concedes. But its limitations are supposed to be part of its charm. Its partiality is supposed to “[provoke] others into highlighting omissions and proposing additions,” which is an excuse dressed up as a prompt.

The show fails at the conceptual level as well. In stressing the classics, it misses how the history of fashion is a record of deviations from archetypal constructions. Design is less about capturing the pure form of the car or the jug or the sari, but about making iterations of those things. Furthermore, the principle of combination might be one of the most important ideas in fashion design, but there is no possibility for combination in a show in which each piece is discreetly isolated from the others. For example, in the lived world there is no isolated instance of the zhifu jacket. There is always also a pair of trousers, a shoe. On the day I saw the exhibit, I wore an oversized bomber jacket over a Fred Perry dress, which in turn covered a pair of knickers that were very slightly too small—all part of an individual typology of clothing that had no place in the generalized typology on display.

The too-tight knickers served me in another way, acting as a constant reminder that I was a body with dimensions. There are no bodies in this show, only identical mannequins repeating the absence of human beings. Here is an argument for why fashion does not belong in a museum: Ideally, when looking at a piece of design, the viewer is taken out of her narrow experience and into a sublime world of aesthetics. It’s an old-fashioned notion of experiencing art, but MoMA is an old-fashioned place. A museum like MoMA can show us the different ways that humanity has mastered the form of the chair, for example. The fashion exhibition, in contrast, returns the viewer to her body. It’s a real challenge not to imagine oneself inside the clothes. The emptiness of the mannequin is like a black hole into which remembrance of one’s own body rushes.

If MoMA were to stage an entire show about men’s suits, taking us inside their architecture and along the river of their role in history and all across their meaning in the world, viewers would leap to see it. We want to know about the white T-shirt, not just see it hanging on the wall. Seeing two slip dresses beside each other teaches little about the slip dress, other than to remind you that they exist. And a pair of jeans is nothing without a pair of legs inside them. Items: Is Fashion Modern? avoids both the worn garment and the platonic concept of garment design, landing at a weird and uninspiring place in the middle, hanging lifeless like a dress on a mannequin.