Is fashion modern? | HOW TO SEE the Items exhibition with MoMA curator Paola Antonelli


We are on the sixth floor of the Museum of
Modern Art. My name is Paola Antonelli. I’m a Senior Curator in the Department of
Architecture and Design here at MoMA. And together with a quite outstanding curatorial
team – I cannot name all the names right now, but you should look them up – I organized
the exhibition “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” This is the first fashion show that MoMA has
done in more than 70 years. That means that the last time MoMA tackled
fashion and garments was in 1944, when a curator called “Bernard Rudofsky” did
an exhibition called “Are Clothes Modern?” And that’s where the subtitle of this show
comes from. “Items” consist of 111 items of clothing or
things that we can wear on our body that had a strong impact on the world in the past 100
years. As curators of design at MoMA, we believe
that it is our task not to tell people what’s good and what’s bad, but rather
help people develop and sharpen their own critical tools. So by coming to this exhibition, people will
have this kind of shock of the familiar. Right? They will see pieces that they own in the
context of a museum exhibition in such like an august hall as MoMA. And that kind of moment of recognition will
spark a new reflection on the things we wear. And also, ultimately, on the impact that they
have on society, and also on the environment. There are many museums that do
fashion shows, and they do a great job at that. We didn’t want to repeat what they already
do. We didn’t want to do a monographic show about
the mastery of one designer. We didn’t want to talk about one style in
a particular moment. That’s not our expertise. What we’re really good at is design. So we decided to do a design exhibition about
fashion in which we would focus on every single item and really look at the way this item
was born, why it was there, what it implies, what the sociological, historical,
technological, and also aesthetic context is. This particular platform gives a sense of
what it means to do a design show with fashion as the subject. You see, it starts with a piece of high fashion. It’s Rei Kawakubo, Comme des Garcons 1997,
a collection called “Body Meets Dress – Dress Meets Body,” when a journalist from “The New
York Times,” Guy Trebay, came to see the exhibition and noticed that this piece is next to Vivienne
Westwood’s bum bag and to a fanny pack from MTV from the 1980s. He told me that, actually, when he interviewed
Kawakubo in ’97 after this collection had been released, she told him that she had been
influenced by kids in the street wearing fanny packs. And you’ll see in this platform, you move
from this idea to actually, maternity, the first Snugli that was designed in the early
1970s. And then a prototype that we commissioned
of a young Chinese designer, Wei Hung Chen, of a modular maternity dress, and
then examples of maternity clothes from the 1950s. You see, this platform is about bodies changing,
bodies not being always perfect but getting fat, getting thin, getting pregnant, having
accidents. Just the idea that fashion has to accommodate
a changing body and not oblige the body to adapt itself to it. These sculptures that you see here,
they’re quite gorgeous, they come from the previous MoMA show about fashion, the 1944
“Are Clothes Modern?” So these beautiful plaster statues that you
see here represent what female bodies should have looked like in different moments in history
to match the fashion of that time. So this crazy centaur shape is from the middle
of the 19th century. And then you move to the Victorian era, all
the way to the flapper, concave, breastless shape. So it’s a way to point out how fashion sometimes
does not match reality and human bodies. This platform puts next to each other the
bikini and the burkini. One would think that they are polar opposites
but in truth they represent two different examples of attempts to legislate women’s
bodies in history. Not only that, you can find pictures from
the same beaches in south France in which in the 1950s police were harassing women for
wearing too little and last year they were harassing women on the same beaches for wearing
too much. So it’s fascinating how modesty or the sense
of what is decent and indecent is legislated in different ways in different moments in
history and different locations. The exhibition will also address the idea
of luxury. You know, what luxury means to us today, the
power of brands, the idea of scarcity whether real or provoked by a marketing campaign. And for instance, you see here the Birkin
bag. This is the one that really belonged to Jane
Birkin, and it’s beaten up and it had stickers on. It’s like so different from what you would
think an “it” bag to be. Usually, it’s kept pristinely and perfectly. We also have a great, great
New York-born and bred example in the work of Dapper Dan. In the 1980s, he had a great boutique in Harlem
and he made his own clothes. He was a great tailor and also super-elegant
person. And he wanted to carry Louis Vuitton and Gucci,
but the companies did not really see eye to eye, or were not interested. Who knows? So he decided to make his own. And with that silk screen over there, he was
creating jackets that were absolutely his own tailoring and his own design that had,
that carried also those logos. People have no idea of what an excitement
it is to work on an exhibition. I like to say that when you’re
a curator, you’re a little bit like a director and a producer of a movie, and MoMA is the
studios. But you get to work with an amazing crew of
individuals that… Well, of course, the curators, but then there’s
the registrar that takes care of every single item that comes into the exhibition. There’s the art handlers that set everything
up. For this exhibition, we had an incredible
master dresser, Tae Smith, with her crew. And also, there’s the Audio Visuals people. And sometimes they are responsible for the
real success of certain installations, for instance, the tattoos here. So for this installation, the team and I wanted
to render the fact that tattoos have been forever in history and very much part of many
cultures. But lately, they have become also a fashion
for people that do not necessarily belong to cultures that have tattoos as tradition
but want to kind of represent their own personality in different ways. So in order to do so, we wanted to show different
tattoos. And what our Audio Visuals crew
did is they took pictures of tattoos on bodies, and then they remapped them onto mannequins. Which by the way, are real people, not the
usual Size 0’s. This is a special order, Size 10, so a real
woman. They remapped them so that they also can follow
the curves of the body. It’s a very complex and fascinating work that
is completely rendered effortless when you watch it, but in truth is a marvel
to reckon with. And we’re getting now to a section that we
call the “Power Section.” Actually, it is a section in which we try
to discuss the idea of power. There’s the Savile Row suit that we start
with, and then there’s the unstructured suit with Armani in the 1980s and Yamamoto. One of the masterpieces in the exhibition
is the Zoot Suit that we borrowed from the museum in Los Angeles, LACMA, the Burton suit,
a Bill Blass, all the way to women’s suits that nonetheless still mimic and adapt
men’s hard power for women. So it really is about this staple of power
that has been for many, many decades, the suit. In particular, the Savile Row suit. But in this day and age, you should not be
sure that the person wearing the Savile Row suit in the room is the tallest poppy. It’s not necessarily so. The tallest poppy, in truth, might
be wearing this t-shirt. That’s really what power is today – the
ability to be yourself no matter the circumstances and to really project your identity. And it’s also good to be able to end the whole
exhibition with the white t-shirt. In front of the Savile Row suit, of course,
but also by itself, it condenses all the issues that we have tried to discuss in this exhibition. It talks about aesthetics, it talks about
ethics, it points back to the raw materials that sometimes are gathered with
violence and with injustice, if you think of picking cotton. And it goes on all the way to the end of the
life cycle of garments to the idea of waste that sometimes Western societies saddle Eastern
and Southern societies with. So it’s a whole world, a whole universe of
issues and of possibilities, and of responsibilities that people should make as their own when
they decide to wear a particular garment. If you want to find out more about
the white t-shirt, about the Savile Row suit, about the designers behind the items and about
the circumstances around them, please go on the Coursera platform. We have produced a whole online course that
is called “Fashion as Design.” And if you want to see more videos like this,
subscribe to the MoMA YouTube channel.

13 thoughts on “Is fashion modern? | HOW TO SEE the Items exhibition with MoMA curator Paola Antonelli

  1. ! I been watching you for a long time, I am an artist and you inspired me to make art tutorials too! I hope the art community can benefit and learn from my videos like how you inspired others!

  2. Ciao Paola, dal tuo "vecchio" amico Walter 🙂 Prima o poi riuscirò a portare qualche mio studente al MOMA… Buon 2018!

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