Does Fashion Have A Place In Art? MoMA Says Yes

Does Fashion Have A Place In Art? MoMA Says Yes

V sits down with Paola Antonelli, the Senior Curator of Architecture and Design heading up the sure-to-be landmark exhibition “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” opening October 1.

V sits down with Paola Antonelli, the Senior Curator of Architecture and Design heading up the sure-to-be landmark exhibition “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” opening October 1.

Text: Christina Cacouris

The fashion-as-art debate has raged on for years, with no definitive end in sight. But when the Museum of Modern Art announced early last year they would be putting on a fashion exhibition—the first in over 70 years for the museum—the fashion community wondered if perhaps it would signal the end of the debate. To investigate, V sat down with Paola Antonelli, the MoMA’s Senior Curator of Architecture and Design, who gave us a special preview of what’s to come in the sure-to-be landmark exhibition she’s curating, "Items: Is Fashion Modern?".

Why now? Why is fashion finally being embraced by the MoMA?

I came in ’94 [and] noticed there was hardly any garments in the collection. I asked Philip Johnson why, and he gave me a few unconvincing answers… ‘It’s too ephemeral, the seasonality, it’s not good for the timelessness of modern.’ It didn’t make too much sense. I came to the conclusion that you cannot really tell a history of design, any history of design, without thinking of garments. Because if you think about it, if you tell a history of product designs, they’re products. You can go through all the known forms of design and realize that fashion is part of it. Fashion is really a big part of our lives—even if you think of the definition of design, fashion is paramount.

I started making a list of what should we add to the collection called “Garments that changed the world." The [current] director of the museum knew about it, so at some point he told me: "Have you ever thought about making it into an exhibition? Why don't you?" So that's how it happened.

You started a Medium publication to document the whole process of building this exhibition; tell me about that.

So many people want to show you the finished product, but I think that instead the audience is really interested in process. For people to know that somebody sat down and said “we’re missing fashion, let me think about it and create a show.” And also to let people know there was another instance in the history of MoMA when fashion was discussed, in 1944. It was another exhibition that was very much about a question mark. It was about understanding garments at that time. Today we’re trying to understand fashion as a system, that’s also how the world has changed. We’re thinking in much more systemic terms.

One of your posts detailed each of the selections you made for the exhibition, I was curious to see that you had chosen YSL’s Touche Éclat and Coppertone Sunscreen; are you making the statement that cosmetics are an extension of fashion?

The exhibition is about items you can wear. A great part of what we wear is not always tangible, and sunscreen has become such an important part, and the idea of contouring, and the red lipstick, and even the Chanel No. 5—it’s all things that you can don, that you can put on. We were thinking about the stereotype that has been important and representing important moments in the century, so even the idea of sunscreen definitely does.

And of course you’ve included some menswear designers. A lot of fashion themed exhibitions really just focus on women’s clothing. Why haven’t museums traditionally looked to menswear as something that should be included?

I have a theory that is probably almost blasphemous, but I have a feeling men’s clothing was not explored that much before because it is not spectacular enough. And fashion shows are about spectacle. Women’s fashion has always been so much more alluring to the untrained eye. But I think that men’s fashion has changed tremendously, and is becoming more immediately interesting.

I was surprised to see Rei Kawakubo's Body Meets Dress on the list since many of the other items were iconic fashion staples like the “little black dress.”

It goes from the very universal to the very specific. Those might seem rarified and specific and esoteric but they have an echo that’s percolated down to mainstreet retailers very easily. I think we all wear part of Body Meets Dress in us right now because it’s percolated down. When you have something that is so strong, so absolutely manifesto-like, whether it’s Le Smoking by Saint Laurent—there are these moments in fashion history that start as acupuncture but then have a chain reaction that is indelible.

Are you hopeful that this show will help instill the notion that fashion does belong in the art world?

 Well, interestingly, what I am focusing on is design rather than art. In a way, the debate about fashion as art was already over before me; it’s the debate on fashion as design that is more open. The problem is that those debates are never over. But these debates are important because they make people think and talk. It doesn’t matter which side you’re on, and it doesn’t matter how judgmental certain critics can be; I always welcome the conversation because it really is about exposing people to the importance of fashion, and to make them take a stance.

Items: Is Fashion Modern? opens October 1. 

Credits: COVER IMAGE: A-POC Le Feu, by Issey Miyake and Dai Fujiwara, from the Issey Miyake spring/summer 1999 collection. Photograph by Yasuaki Yoshinaga. Courtesy A-POC LE FEU, 1999 Spring Summer ISSEY MIYAKE Paris Collection. Photo: Yasuaki Yoshinaga via the Museum of Modern Art

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