It is a polite exaggeration to say that MoMA has an idiosyncratic history of exhibiting fashion—but when we have done so, we have made it count. Although a few individual garments, accessories, and footwear have surfaced in exhibitions over the decades, the 1944 exhibition Are Clothes Modern? was the only time the museum has dedicated an entire program to the subject. Its curator Bernard Rudofsky was (and still is) better known for his seminal 1964 exhibition, Architecture without Architects. His subtitle for this later exhibition, An Introduction to Non-pedigreed Architecture, is often omitted in reference to the show, but it is important. It indicates the type of object-centered, design-led investigation that Rudofsky pioneered twenty years earlier, tracing designs rather than designers, and intersectional social concerns rather than individual biographies.
With his 1944 exhibition, Rudofsky was, in great part, trying to (re)locate fashion within wider discourses of design, art, society, and culture. In the press release for the exhibition, he railed against the peripheral role fashion has generally been given in the allied scholarship of the visual arts and culture, lamenting:
It is strange that dress has been generally denied the status of art, when it is actually a most happy summation of aesthetic, philosophic and psychological components […] its intimate relation to the very source and standard of all aesthetic evaluations, the human body, should make it the supreme achievement among the arts.
Writing about Lady Gaga in March 2016, New York Times fashion journalist Vanessa Friedman astutely reminded us that this is still fashion’s place in the visual arts: “For while fashion may be famous for its elitism, it has long been seen, and often sees itself, as the stepchild of the art world; the less worthy creative form. We all have our complexes.” In the past seven decades, it seems that some things have not changed. Others have. Like many fields of creative endeavor, fashion—as a place of research and a professional landscape—still needs validation, at times. And indeed fashion is now being recognized by curators, writers, and researchers outside its very core—as well as consumers and designers—as the gold mine it has always been: an intersectional, global, political phenomenon.
A significant conceptual motivation for the exhibition we will open at MoMA this fall, Items: Is Fashion Modern? is investigating whether there is a compelling place for fashion in a museum dedicated to the “art of our time,” as director Alfred H. Barr, Jr. defined it in that same year, 1944. The art of our time wrestles with what it means to be alive, and to experience worlds and selves at a particular socio-cultural and historical moment. Fashion is absolutely embedded in this conversation, and in multiple ways—as a marker of time and memory, a maker of status, or vehicle for fantastical escapism, certainly, it helps us mediate, describe, and explain modern life. We think of the decrepit clothes of the stonebreakers painted by Gustave Courbet that—ripped, patched, stained—express the artist’s desire to elicit empathy and political consciousness in his viewer. John Singer Sargent’s infamous Madame X (1883 – 84) imbued sensuality and scandal in one drooping strap. Yoko Ono needed clothing to transgress not only the relationship between viewer and art object, but between the clothed and naked (female) body in Cut Piece (1964). And via the power of an MTV music video, Run DMC immortalized not just a shoe, but the well-worn tropes of commonality, desire, and aspiration in their song “My Adidas” (1986): And I walk down the street and I bop to the beat / With Lee on my legs and Adidas on my feet.
But far from merely reflecting human hope and tension, fashion also shapes us in the crucible of these forces, and thus our engagement with the visual arts. Further than Courbet’s commentary on labor and class, fashion items themselves—and the hands and bodies that create them—encompass roiling histories of struggle, from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire to the corporate responsibility controversies of the 1980s, to the more recent travesty at Rana Plaza.
And yet, in almost every definition of the visual arts, fashion (and often design, too) is missing.
Since the early 1930s, curators in MoMA’s Architecture and Design department have parsed similarities and differences between fine and applied arts, mining the rich seam of overlap while carving a space for medium-specific exploration. We have a track record when it comes to making the connection between the expansive and diverse everyday lives of our visitors, the scholarly research and history of our field, and objects of design—among which we unequivocally count fashion items. This approach—complete, complex, as attentive to ethics as to aesthetics, kaleidoscopic yet exacting—can help locate a new center of gravity for the field of fashion and reassert its role as an incisive and confident contributor to the broad pantheon of the visual arts.