Curated by Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator of MoMA's Architecture and Design, the idea for the exhibit started with a list, one she started for her own personal interest, entitled, "garments that changed the world." This list eventually became the 111 things that together can constitute our whole understanding of fashion of the last 100 years. They are things we wear, from safety pins, to jeans, to perfume, to accessories, and even tattoos.
"And what a list it is, from kaffiyehs to kilts, flip-flops to guayaberas, pencil skirts to moon boots, Speedos to Spanx." -Guy Trebay, The New York Times
As with the best exhibits, this one will change the way we think about its subject. Here's why:
Fashion's complexity made simple
Antonelli has made the vast complexity of fashion seemingly simple, without sacrificing the breath of it. A simple number to remember, 111 items; mapped out in one big, clear drawing on the outer wall of the exhibit; laid out in simple, clean, well-lit visual displays once you step inside. Everything feels intentionally pared down to make fashion easy to understand and digest. It is fashion organized into a system, like an alphabet.
As such, the exhibit is a beautiful example of one of design's core functions--to make the complex simple, easy to understand, use, and accessible to many. That is why most people love Apple products, even child can understand and use them in no time. In the same way, a child will get this exhibit and so will we.
You own at least some of these items
This is the rare museum exhibit where you can walk through and say, "Ah, I own this." Or if you go to the exhibit wearing your white t-shirt; your old Levis 501's; a whiff of your Chanel No. 5, your Dr. Maartens boots, or luxuriously, a single strand of Mikimoto pearls, you will actually be wearing a museum piece.
New Yorkers and Fashion go together like bread and butter
The great fun here is that it is hard to separate this exhibit from its visitors . The aisles crowded with New Yorkers (and out-of-towners who have the New Yorker dress code down) are as interesting as the exhibit itself. On opening night you couldn't help but smile at the beautiful tattoos of the people looking at the tattoo display, or the deftly tied ties of the men in suits eyeing the neckties, or women in shoes as fashion bending as the shoes on display.
Poetry: archetype, stereotype, prototype
In reading Antonelli's 2016 notes on the exhibit announcement, I learned that she conceived the exhibit experience as "stereotype, archetype, prototype". Stereotype is the version of the item as we've come to recognize it, the archetype is the contextual story of the item and the prototype is an exploration of where the idea can be further taken. Antonelli gives the example of the DVF wrap-dress which illustrates the concept well.
"For example, if Diane von Furstenberg's 1974 wrap dress represents the stereotype of this design form in the 20th century, then Items will extrapolate backwards in time through examples such as Charles James's 1932 Taxi Dress, all the way to the archetype of the kimono. If, in the course of exhibition research, a type emerged as ripe for a redesign or was identified as a potential vessel for technological, formal, economic, or social transformation, we have decided to commission a new prototype."
It is the poetry of the concept behind the execution that makes this exhibit stand out as a timeless expression of fashion. But like any good design, you don't need to know the conceptual backbone to appreciate the end result as the user. But once you know it, it gives you more reason to celebrate the hard work that went into creating a thing of beauty.
I came out of Items: Is Fashion Modern?, thinking "I now get it. I understand fashion." If you asked me, I can draw it for you. I can explain it to you over the phone. I can even explain fashion, and what it is made up of, to a kid. That is good design.
Items: Is Fashion Modern? opens October 1, at MoMA, New York.