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Review: MOMA - "Items: Is Fashion Modern?" 

From the MOMA - "Items: Is Fashion Modern?" explores the present, past—and sometimes the future—of 111 items of clothing and accessories that have had a strong impact on the world in the 20th and 21st centuries—and continue to hold currency today. Driven first and foremost by objects, not designers, the exhibition considers the many relationships between fashion and functionality, culture, aesthetics, politics, labor, identity, economy, and technology.” The 350 pieces within the presentation are curated by MOMA's Paola Antonelli and Michelle Millar Fisher. 
More from the MOMA, the exhibition’s statement at the entrance wall:
Items is the first exhibition on fashion at The Museum of Modern Art since 1944 when curator Bernard Rudofsky organized "Are Clothes Modern?", a provocation that was intended to prod museumgoers to reconsider their relationship with the clothes they wore. With today's question "ls Fashion Modern?" we shift the focus from the individual to the collective sphere and highlight not only the ways in which clothing is made but also the ways in which it might be made. Every item in the exhibition can be used as a lens through which to gain a deeper understanding of fashion in all its systemic complexity.
Today, like yesterday, "modern" in architecture and design indicates a constructive attitude based on the unity of the arts, working together on society's needs, aspirations, and priorities. In this exhibition, garments created for the benefit of many coexist with those made for the delight of a few. What they have in common is their influence on the world over the past one hundred years. We examine these items in three tiers: archetype, stereotype, and prototype. Presented first in the incarnation that made a particular garment or accessory significant-its stereotype-each item is accompanied by contextual material that traces it back to historical archetypes. Our method for defining a design's stereotype was subjective but drew on collective consciousness: when you close your eyes and think of a sari or a pair of chinos, what do you see? That is the item's stereotype. For about a third of these pieces, we are presenting new prototypes (whose labels have a red corner) that use pioneering materials, more sustainable approaches, and novel design techniques. Most of them were commissioned especially for this exhibition.
The exhibition is opened with a ceiling to floor list of the 111 “categories" that comprise the study. The list starts with Levi’s 501 and ends with Yves Saint Laurent’s Touché Eclat. It is an organization of items as much as it is representative of the themes: archetype (jeans, converse, t-shirts, little black dress), stereotype (burkini, bandanas, suit, keffiyeh, hijab), prototype (Fitbit, moon boot, surgical mask, snugli).
Does the exhibit answer the question “is fashion modern?” If fashion fulfills a change in the world, the answer is yes - the burkini. If fashion continues a relevance, yes - the white t-shirt. If fashion addresses a future need, yes - the Fitbit. If modern is the evolution or impact of fashion, the answer is obvious. It is an interesting question, as the subject is one that can be perceived as frivolous. These are objects that are associated mostly with excess and fulfilling status. Performance is a growing category, and lifestyle changes drive this need. Nike or Adidas would have never been considered fashion, but with sneaker culture on the rise, this is integrated into most collections. Seldom is fashion recognized for social impact, and the burkini was created to respect traditions in a modern world, a design that sparked controversy when in 2016 there was a proposed ban in areas of France.
It is an ambitious show with the amount of subjects matters to tackle and bringing some cohesion to the 350 pieces (a few were special commissions). There is a lot to observe, from the understanding of how the garments interact with the body and create silhouettes, how an individual controls the image they portray and establishes another visage, as well as how the changes in the demands of life require innovation. Some ideas had more support than others. Silhouettes were addressed by little black dresses, and undergarments. Social commentary was also sharp with the display of suits as a representation of power and items that point to the change of a woman's needs in a professional world. Innovation was a more desperate angle. The Fitbit and Patagonia jacket almost stood by themselves unrelated to anything else. There were the odd items that just didn’t seem to connect to a topic - the Bain de Sol and Yves Saint Laurent Touche Éclat beauty products are a stretch and also get lost in the entire presentation (besides the fact that they are fashion related but not fashion). 
This a three-in-one show. If the show had focused on one topic and expanded on the visual, it might have built excitement and cohesion. Take archetype. The t-shirt, jeans, biker jacket, sneaker, tracksuit. Each comes from a place of utility. But today, each is referenced by some of the most prominent design houses. Who would have ever imagined that Valentino presenting sneakers and custom jeans, that Ricardo Tisci would be partnering with Nike, or J.W. Anderson with Converse? Each archetype can be introduced via evolution showing the longevity of the design elements from a very straightforward functional starting point, or discussing how today's best creators still reference these timeless ideas. There is nothing more modern than that. An entire show could also have been created through the idea of prototypes and cultural appropriation. The sari, hijab, and burkini open the topic of appropriation or inspiration. Are there modern interpretations of modesty? How has modesty and cultural norms changed through time? What is the contemporary version of what is acceptable in various social spheres? In this one topic, there are so many sub-topics. The same can be said about innovation and the future of fashion, the developments with sustainable design and fabrications are both timely and future in dialogue.
The show wants to accomplish so much that it almost does nothing. With a growing public interest in fashion and the immense success of the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibitions, the MOMA needs to focus the subject matter better and find an angle. Does it have to be smart, yes, but shouldn't they understand how this works? The strength of the Metropolitan Museum’s shows is picking one topic and doing a deep dive. Are they always perfect? Sometimes. The Manus X Machina show's simplicity got the point across and informed the viewer that there is more to what they see, the innovation and craftsmanship that is almost invisible. "Items: Is Fashion Modern?” is so conceptual it forgot one significant element - fashion is also inherently visual, the presentation has to enhance the experience, making the entirety of the experience come alive. This is why they opened the show with the little black dresses from Versace, Dior, and Mugler - to entice, which the overall show did not.
Given that this is the MOMA’s first fashion exhibition since “Are Clothes Modern?” 73 years ago, there is homework to do. Try to follow along curator Paola Antonelli's thinking in an interview in the video below:
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