The Items Salon and Abecedarium: MoMA’s First Major Dialogue on Fashion and Design in Over 70 Years

Authors: Paola Antonelli and Michelle Millar Fisher

Senior Curator and Curatorial Assistant, MoMA. Special thanks to all the presenters who shared their work at MoMA in mid-May.

Three days. Twenty-six iconic items, issues, and ideas. Thirty-eight speakers. One upcoming exhibition. In May 2016 we held the initial public discussions centered around Items: Is Fashion Modern?, MoMA’s first exhibition dedicated to design and fashion in more than 70 years. What follows is a sample of the dialogue that resulted. We’ll continue to post the research we undertake — programs, travels, conversations, and more — before the exhibition opens in December 2017.

From left: Penny Martin, Kim Hastreiter, and Omoyemi Akerele speaking at the Salon, Sunday, May 15, 2016. Photo courtesy The Museum of Modern Art/Manuel Molina Martagan, 2016

As we outlined when we announced our exhibition back in April, the impetus for the title came from curator Bernard Rudofsky’s 1944 MoMA exhibition Are Clothes Modern?, a compelling yet relatively little-known show that marks the only other time MoMA has fully addressed this field of design. In Are Clothes Modern? Rudofsky explored individual and collective relationships with mid-century clothing in the waning moments of WWII, when convention simply no longer cut it, but old attitudes still, in many senses, prevailed: women still poured their bodies into uncompromising silhouettes and menswear still demanded superfluous pockets, buttons, cuffs, and collars. Rudofsky’s question and broad approach provide a springboard (and a foil) for considering the ways in which fashion items are designed, manufactured, distributed, and worn today. The title of our upcoming exhibition, Items: Is Fashion Modern?, deliberately wrestles with the knotty words fashion, modern, and (true to MoMA’s expertise) design through the lens of items — the garments, accessories, and accoutrements that have left an indelible mark on the 20th and 21st centuries. This design-led (rather than designer-led) approach — complete, complex, as attentive to ethics as to aesthetics, kaleidoscopic yet exacting — offers an alternative center of gravity for the field of fashion.

In May, we asked four amazing speakers to consider the question that titles our exhibition. Penny Martin, Editor-in-Chief, The Gentlewoman; Omoyemi Akerele, Founder, Lagos Fashion and Design Week; Alphonso D. McClendon, Associate Professor of Design, Drexel University; and Kim Hastreiter, Co-founder and Co-Editor-in-Chief, PAPER magazine, brought their unique perspectives to bear and the evening’s dialogue covered everything from globalization and homogeneity, uniforms, and the breakneck pace of seasonal fashion in the atelier, on the runway, and in the shop window, all the way to reality TV, appropriation, and fashion vs. culture.

Omoyemi Akerele and Alphonso D. McClendon. Photo courtesy The Museum of Modern Art/Manuel Molina Martagan, 2016

The conversation was rich, but in a nutshell: Penny Martin traced contemporary reactions to and rejections of fashion industry norms; Omoyemi Akerele charted the ongoing interplay between contemporary fashion in Africa and an archive of historical and cultural references; Alphonso McClendon highlighted the context of the black American body in clothing through the 20th century, highlighting moments of agency and defiance through fashion; and Kim Hastreiter magisterially highlighted the mundane and sublime cultural sites from whence fashion emerges, and the tensions between creativity and technology. You can see video of the salon, track the entire discussion as it unfolded on social media via #ItemsMoMA (which, for a hot minute, even trended on Twitter), or check out the resulting Storify.

The following day, on the heels of the Salon, we held a daylong abecedarium together with our French colleague, design historian and curator Alexandra Midal. Each letter of the alphabet engendered a seven-minute deep-dive into one particular item — an alphabetical sampler of what’s to come in the forthcoming exhibition, in which the checklist will expand from 26 to 99 items.

On the eve of his exhibition opening in 1944, Rudofsky wrote, “It is strange that dress has been generally denied the status of art…. Its intimate relation to the very source and standard of all esthetic evaluations, the human body, should make it the supreme achievement among the arts.” We are incredibly grateful to each of the speakers for their participation. Their offerings over the course of the program proved Rudofsky’s statement — his concern about the status of fashion, and his assurance that it merited respect and deep consideration — still echoes in the present. Below is our compendium of key quotes from the day (each letter is linked to a time-stamped video for ease of viewing). Taken together, they reflect the speakers’ strong and compelling views on the intersectional field of fashion design. Fashion matters. Rudofsky knew it; many other curators have known it since. We’re excited to be exploring, investigating, challenging, and celebrating this area of design in the company of such brilliant colleagues.

Legendary Nike designer and VP Creative Concepts Tinker Hatfield presents A = Air. Photo courtesy The Museum of Modern Art/Manuel Molina Martagan, 2016

A = Air

Tinker Hatfield, VP Creative Concepts, Nike, on being inspired by everything, from the architecture of the Pompidou Center to street style: “Design is about fresh ideas. And it’s also about re-appropriating ideas, which is a nice way of saying “stealing.” I think a lot of designers do re-appropriate, do borrow from others. I think that’s just the way it is for design.”

B = Blackglama Fur Coat

Dan Mathews, Senior Vice President, PETA, on the success of consciousness-raising via fashion and the “I’d Rather Go Naked than Wear Fur” campaign: “To the new generation, the whole fur issue is old fashioned. They’re avoiding leather now. I think it’s time to reinvent the campaign once more, maybe with the slogan I’d rather bare skin than wear skin.”

C = Cheongsam

Harold Koda, former Curator-in-Charge, The Costume Institute, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, on the silhouette, rather than the surface decoration, as the true site of modernity: When it’s properly cut, no matter what your size, shape, or age, if it fits, the cheongsam creates an incredible kind of dignity and allure in the same way that a tuxedo does for a man…. The second skin asserts the individual’s body while foregrounding their gestures, the way they walk, their hand gestures, and their face. It becomes something that, to my mind, is truly modern.”

D = Dr. Martens

David Godlis, artist and photographer, on items as palimpsests of different histories and uses: Are Doc Martens modern? Well, they’re the shoe loved by Nazis, punks, and grunge kids. Doesn’t get more modern than that.”

Iconic punk photographer David Godlis presents D = Dr. Martens. Photo courtesy The Museum of Modern Art/Manuel Molina Martagan, 2016

E = E-Commerce

Maxine Bédat, Co-founder and CEO, Zady, on overconsumption and obsolescence: “It was the leadership of IKEA that recently stated, ironically, that we are at peak stuff. We have never had so much clothing and at such dirt-cheap prices. Consumers, in fact, have 300 percent more clothes than they did just a generation ago.”

F = Facial Hair

Sean Trainor, historian, writer, and educator, on the contemporaneity of hair: Today’s beards are reflective of America’s changing demographics and the modern virtue of diversity, to which many Americans at least pay obliging lip service. Beards are most likely found on Muslim Sikhs, orthodox and Jewish men, as well as Iraq and Afghanistan military veterans, who, in an understudied case of influence, have adopted facial hair in large numbers.”

G = Gym

Sofia Hedman and Serge Martynov, curators, Museea, on speculative and critical athleisure: Gym bodies can also morph you into the dream world…. In the future, virtual reality may allow us to do yoga in a beach in India or perhaps go for a jog on another planet, even.”

Curators Serge Martynov and Sofia Hedman present G = Gym. Photo courtesy The Museum of Modern Art/Manuel Molina Martagan, 2016

H = Hoodie

Kerby Jean-Raymond, Founder, Pyer Moss, and DeRay Mckesson, educator and activist, Black Lives Matter, on the ways that fashion and clothing function in relation to blackness: “When we think about hoodies, and this idea of worn resistance, it is a notion that…we might be able to call into question the very dynamics and relationships of power and influence that are at play.”

I = Invisibility Cloak

Maholo Uchida, Curator of New Media Art and Design, Miraikan, The National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, Tokyo, on the ways in which our bodies may soon become invisible: “We can replace and extend our body parts…. Do we need our body? And do you want your body? Why?

J = Jeans

Emma McClendon, Assistant Curator, The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, on the conflicting cultural capital of denim garments: As we move further into the 21st century, I think jeans occupy an increasingly problematic space. On one hand as cultural symbols, they connote individuality, youth, creativity even, and rebellion. But as physical objects, they are mass-produced, homogenizing garments that have had a truly detrimental impact on the environment.”

Emma McClendon, assistant curator at Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, who presented J = Jeans. Photo courtesy The Museum of Modern Art/Manuel Molina Martagan, 2016

K = Keffiyeh

Hala Malak, Design Critic, Co-founder of Design and Flow and the Kaflab Foundation, and instructor at Parsons School of Design, on the many lives of an iconic piece of cloth: “Treading the realms of streets, politics, traditional garb, trends, and catwalks, the keffiyeh has become more than just a simple item. But an experience, even. Its influence lies in its power to adapt, evolve, exchange, and integrate, all the while standing for many, many contradictions at the same time.”

L = Little Black Dress

Valerie Steele, Director and Chief Curator, The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, on a wardrobe staple: One of the reasons why black is such a powerful color is because there are so many layers of meaning — everything from elegance, evil, desirability, sexiness, power…. In a sense, the little black dress is not a style per se, but it’s a conceptual fashion that’s entirely versatile. There are many ways to design it. It’s modern, it changes, but it’s always the same.”

M = Muumuu

Mickey Boardman, Editorial Director, PAPER magazine, on a much maligned and celebrated silhouette: “The muumuu has a regal and sometimes sad history…. It’s beloved and reviled. But it’s always beloved by large, inebriated actresses and housewives. I’m with them. I love the muumuu.”

PAPER magazine editorial director Mickey Boardman presents M = Muumuu. Photo courtesy The Museum of Modern Art/Manuel Molina Martagan, 2016

N = Nose Job

Joan Kron, journalist, and Michael Kane, plastic surgeon, on the contemporary body as the ultimate fashion item: “Today, every part of the body is an accessory. Especially the nose…. Your face is an item. You wear it every day. For many, your face is your identity. Your face and your identity can be designed…. Are faces modern? Certainly there are many ways to make faces modern.”

O = Opium

Leslie Vosshall, Professor of Neurobiology, Rockefeller University, on the chemistry of scent and its pervasive afterimage in fashion:Perfume is amazing. It sneaks up on you. It’s fashionable. You can’t avoid experiencing it. You can only smell by breathing and you can’t stop breathing. Perfume is a little hidden secret of fashion.”

P = Prosthesis

Aimee Mullins, athlete, actress, and model, on what we mean when we talk about augmenting our bodies: “P for prosthesis. From the Greek, pros, and thesis. It means “in addition.” Around 1900, it started to be used to describe the addition to the body, as in a limb. But it simply means an addition. With that, I’m going to say that all clothes are prosthetics, as is the makeup we wear.”

Athlete, actress, and model Aimee Mullins presents P = Prosthesis. Photo courtesy The Museum of Modern Art/Manuel Molina Martagan, 2016

R = Rana Plaza

Carmen Artigas, sustainable designer, consultant, and educator, and Mary Ping, Founder, Slow and Steady Wins the Race, on the (sometimes absent) ethics of fashion, abandoned in favor of the ever-new: “The word neophilia was coined by the writer Robert Anton Wilson. Neophilia drives fashion.”

S = Syrian Lingerie

Malu Halasa, co-author, The Secret life of Syrian Lingerie: Intimacy and Design and Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline, on secrecy and display in Syrian underwear — and guerilla warfare:War changes everything, even shopping…. The martyred Syrian body, like the naked female form, is transgressive. It’s not to be seen in public. It’s not to be seen in public.”

T = Turtleneck

Hana Tajima, fashion designer, critic, and consultant, on the poetic consonances between the turtleneck and the headscarf: It can create a visual void and bring our attention to something other. If you look at the people who we associate with having appropriated the turtleneck — academics, feminists, and artists — you understand the value of the void; where the focus away from the body becomes a focus toward the mind.”

U = Unisex

Hari Nef, actress, model, and writer, on the futilities of talking about gender through fashion binaries:I think it’s more about looking at people in the clothes and what they’re doing, a gesture, a personality, an action, versus trying to figure out the way out of the gender binary, through clothes.”

V = Veil

Grace Ali, Founder and Editorial Director, OF NOTE magazine, on the political nature of the language, context, and meaning at play when we describe garments: When the Western media reports on the Western veil, the headlines are usually quite complimentary…. When we put the veil in an Eastern context and talk about the Muslim context…something begins to shift.”

From left: MoMA’s Paola Antonelli, model Hari Nef, editor Grace Ali, designer Mary Ping, sustainability consultant Carmen Artigas, model and Harvard MPA grad Sara Ziff, and author and activist Malu Halasa. Photo courtesy The Museum of Modern Art/Manuel Molina Martagan, 2016

W = Dutch Wax

Omoyemi Akerele, Founder, Lagos Fashion and Design Week, on appropriation vs. appreciation: “Even though it’s commonly known as Dutch wax, and Wikipedia references Dutch wax as African wax print, it’s a shared cultural heritage.”

X = XS

Sara Ziff, Founder, Model Alliance, and MPA candidate, Harvard University, on labor, activism, and awareness in fashion:The fashion industry is extremely good at disguising labor…. The runways of New York and the factories of Bangladesh probably couldn’t seem farther apart. But in both cases the work is performed overwhelmingly by women and girls. And they’re both trying to have a voice in their work, and establish their rights in a hostile labor environment.”

Sara Ziff during the abecedarium lunch break. Photo courtesy The Museum of Modern Art/Manuel Molina Martagan, 2016

Y = YSL’s Touche Éclat

Kabuki, make-up artist, on the contemporaneity of cosmetics: Modernity is about being in a present moment. This is critical when designing the makeup for a fashion-week show. It’s a collaborative process. You have to consider everything that’s going on. The venue, the energy of the models, the styling, the hair. The most important thing is how it all works together. It also ensures that one season is never a repeat of the last.”

Z = Zipper

Troy Patterson, Contributing Writer, The New York Times Magazine, on modernity and technologies: Buttons were invented in ancient Egypt. Buttonholes didn’t come around until later. Buttons were decorative strictly. The zipper has traced a contrary path. That is, from its genesis in utility, its energy now is decorative.”