Items: Is Fashion Modern?


A plain white t-shirt, Yankee’s baseball cap, Levi’s 501s, Nike shoes and aviator sunglasses, how more iconic can fashion get? These are a few of the 111 articles of clothing that appear in the current Museum of Modern Art show, “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” NYC has always been an international Mecca for fashion, but this is only MoMA’s second foray into this realm. It’s sole predecessor, “Are Clothes Modern?” — was organized in 1944. So, after 70+ years of neglect, where MoMA has been quietly wrestling with questions about the modernity of costume and more basically is it even art, I’m pleased to have caught this latest update, but what took them so long?

On Columbus Day, the show was well attended, maybe even too well. It is a big show, encompassing all of the top floor. It is rare for MoMA to dedicate so much space to an exhibit. The selection of items varied from the novel to the simply mundane. It is almost as if MoMA can’t decide whether modern fashion is art or not. If an item of apparel has become ubiquitous, does that make if fashion or simply a uniform? This leavening of the unique with the everyday dilutes the show-stopping effect of some of the more interesting pieces. I didn’t need to go to the museum to view a pair of flip-flops.

“Items” is as much anthropological as it is about aesthetics. Subcultural styles trend into the mainstream. Awareness is focused by garments and accessories that everyday people wear around the world. Haute couture is included, but almost as an outlier. In an epilogue, ecologetic concerns are addressed with a wall that describes the impact of modern manufacturing techniques, which have shifted the carbon footprint burden primarily now to garment care. These high-minded concerns aside, there is always something deeply satisfying to see something you or yours owns in a museum setting. 

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