The MOMA Asks: Is Fashion Modern?

By Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi

Bucket bags are on trend this autumn. Heels are blocked, and red boots are particularly chic. Did I mention sleeves? The more voluminous, the better. These styles are super chic and look very ‘now’ – but just how modern are they?

This is the question asked by a new exhibition at the MOMA in New York City. Entitled specifically  Items: Is Fashion Modern?, it explores how certain garments, accessories and trends have reverberated over time. There can be little doubt that designers have riffed on styles from the past, but just how far back to those influences go?

MOMA’s senior curator Paola Antonelli spotlights outstanding individual pieces and examines how their contributions towards culture and design have evolved over history and within different societies.

‘Like other forms of design, fashion exists within a complex system that involves politics and economics as much as it involves style, technology and culture,’   she says. ‘The exhibition examines this complex system using each item as a lens.’

What’s under that lens are 111 fascinating garments and accessories that have had a strong impact on history and society during the 20th and 21st centuries, and which continue to hold currency today. Here, you’ll see Chanel’s Petite Robe Noire (yep – the very first legendary Little Black Dress), Burberry’s first trench coat, Levi’s 501s (Michael J. Fox playing Marty McFly in Back to The Future made these trousers epic), the Casio watch (which revolutionised digital timekeeping), and the coveted Hermès Birkin bag, named after the English-French singer-actress.

This is a point of particular pride to us here at Eluxe, as an old friend of ours is showcased in this amazing exhibit.    The Queen of Vintage Chanel and Hermès, Catherine Benier, is the proud owner of the original Birkin bag,  made by Hermès for Jane Birkin.  Catherine B, as she is known, also displayed her iconic collection of vintage fashion at the  Heritage Suite at Liberty  department store in London in 2014, in honour of the French brand’s 100th anniversary.

The show isn’t about designer names, though – it’s about how fashion makes an impact.

The exhibition focuses on how the vintage fashion items displayed are designed, manufactured, and distributed. It ponders upon the relationships between clothing and functionality, cultural etiquettes, aesthetics, politics, labour, economy, and technology. The analysis for each piece is explored on three levels: archetype (to trace the history of the item), stereotype (to explain what made the piece significant for the past 100 years), and prototype (providing an example of a new commission of the accessory).

It’s the ‘stereotype’ bit that fascinated me the most – why is it that certain styles can survive for over a century and still look fresh? From the perspective of a vintage fashion lover, this is a deeply interesting point to ponder.

There are 111 items here to consider; there are presumably hundreds if not thousands more of potential ‘stereotypes’ we could consider. “I like that aspect that this is not a closed list, but rather an invitation to think about the way in which fashion is constructed,” said MOMA’s Director, Glen Lowry. Clearly, he means that culturally rather than literally – there is nothing here that discusses the ethics of fashion production. But there are some sustainable takeaways from this show; namely, an understanding that certain iconic signifiers, be they the LBD, trench coat or a solidly designed handbag, form the foundation of a sartorial understanding that can last for generations.

Items: Is Fashion Modern? runs  from October 1st, 2017 to January 28th, 2018

Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi
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