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MoMA plunges headfirst into fashion

MoMA plunges headfirst into fashion


NYT Syndicate

The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume (MoMA) Institute, lauded for the fabulousness of its exhibitions of Comme des Garçons, China and Alexander McQueen, finally has some healthy competition. After 70 years of neglect, the Museum of Modern Art has plunged headfirst into fashion, or something like it.
"Items: Is Fashion Modern?" is an intense game of catch-up and only the second exhibition in the Modern's history devoted to clothing design. Its predecessor ”"Are Clothes Modern?" ” was organised in 1944, by Bernard Rudofsky, a provocative architect and social historian who posited that most clothing was"anachronistic, irrational and harmful."
"Profuse" is a useful word with which to approach this ambitious, high-concept effort. Organised by Paola Antonelli, senior curator of the Modern's architecture and design department, and Michelle Millar Fisher, a curatorial assistant, it has involved years of research and travel and is as anthropological as it is aesthetic.
It's big, occupying all of the sixth floor's galleries for temporary exhibitions, which hasn't happened since the de Kooning extravaganza of 2011. Brilliant use is made of video and slide shows. Around 30 prototypes, including 20 newly commissioned by the museum, add sparks of ingenuity ” and of course there is a gift shop fuller than usual of sartorial temptations.
But all in all,"Items" has few of the showstopping moments of extreme craftsmanship, innovation or material lavishness that are a staple of the Met's productions. Including"items" like bluejeans, flip flops, tattoos and a burkini, it largely evades the air of expense, exclusivity and hauteur typical of these ventures. It's even a bit on the austere side, harkening back to the Modern's displays in the 1930s and '40s of the latest kitchenware and furniture ” shows that argued for modern design as an affordable way to improve modern life. It is also, to its credit, an exercise in consciousness-raising that plots the flow of stylistic conventions from subcultures and colonial countries into the Western mainstream and highlights dress as self-expression and political protest ” most directly, with a projection of graphic T-shirts.
Faithful to the museum's way of telling the history of art as a linear, primarily Western phenomenon,"Items" also comes with its own canon ” albeit one that is more global and historically aware in scope.
At its core, the show is a Who's Who of mostly postwar garments and accessories ” 111 items called"paragons of design'' in the press statement. They are listed across a large wall at the exhibition's entrance and illustrated by the slide show opposite of"real" people wearing the chosen gear. In the galleries, examples of the anointed objects are presented, usually accompanied by variations that attest to their influence, and by the prototypes, which generally respond to, or extend, the classics.
The South African textile designer Laduma Ngxokolo, for example, gives new life to the venerable Aran fisherman sweater by adding rich colours to its cable-knitted patterns. The Bret.on project, by Unmade, a personalisation startup, has devised a computer programme that will enable wearers to add their own Surrealistic swirls to the blue and white striped French sailor's pullover. And Zhijun Wang, a Chinese designer, has bulked up the basic surgical mask, using designer sneakers as material, thus converting fetishised footwear into post-apocalyptic chic. The clothing landscape is carefully culled and categorised, as perhaps only the Modern can do. A small section on luxury includes a beat-up Hermes Birkin handbag, a Tiffany diamond and a Rolex watch, but this is undercut by less costly expressions of extravagance, including door-knocker earrings and custom nail art.
Generally,"Items" focuses on garments and accessories that people around the world wear every day for any number of complex reasons ” including climate, personal style, economics, religious faith or political stance. It presents the biker jacket, chinos, guayabera shirts and kaffiyeh head scarves, including a new prototype, by the Beirut-based architect Salim Al-Kadi, in bullet-deflecting Kevlar. Also on the list: all manner of sportswear and outerwear tracksuits, parkas, puffers and fleece. It is so people-oriented that it includes a prototype for a plus-size mannequin (most are size 0).
With a Chanel gown here; two saris there; espadrilles and two beautiful Chinese cheongsam dresses elsewhere,"Items" mediates between high and low, East and West, couture and common. But it stays fairly low, creating an air of familiarity that is then enriched by the labels and catalogue, which pinpoint origins, regional variations and technological advances. The structure of the pencil skirt is considered. It usually had 20 components, making assembly laborious; Chen Zhi's Lycra-angora prototype has only three and is wrinkle-resistant. Or the history of the Kashmir shawl from the British Empire to the recent pashmina craze. The salwar kameez, the combination of tunic and loose fitting pants from the Punjab, we learn, has"historically been unisex" and, through Muslim immigration, become a staple and influence the world over. At times the word"fashion" in the show's title almost smacks of false advertising: It might better have been called"Clothes Are Everyone" or"Crowdsourced Personal Style."