23-Nov, 06:58

14:54, September 26 80 0

2017-09-26 14:54:03
Van Gogh on Five, Wonderbra on Six. Going Up.

“I don’t know whether you ever made a list of all the people you kissed in your life,” said Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art one recent Monday. (Answer: Yes, and no regrets, though I wouldn’t like them all to walk into this room right now.)

“Lists are irresistible,” Ms. Antonelli said. “The minute you make one, someone points out something you forgot.”

We were standing on a sixth floor landing at the museum as conservators and white-gloved art handlers buzzed about. The material they were installing may seem anomalous in the setting, and that is because you will not often encounter a Wonderbra sharing quarters with a Van Gogh.

In fact, it has been seven decades since MoMA deigned to confer on fashion anything resembling the status of art. Back in 1944 there was an obscure though compelling exhibition in which the curator Bernard Rudofsky first inquired: “Are Clothes Modern?” The question built into the title of that show underscored the perennially dubious position of fashion as an art form and subject worthy of study, and little about that has altered in the ensuing years.

Ms. Antonelli readily concedes that when the notion of revisiting the Rudofsky show at MoMA came to her, she was filled with doubt. “I am embarrassed to admit that at first I felt anxiety about using ‘fashion’ in the title,” she writes in an introduction to a book accompanying this new show, called “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” It contains 111 iconic items of use and adornment, and it opens Oct. 1.

Her decision to add “Items” to the title was partly a curatorial strategy to de-emotionalize fashion and rehabilitate its discourse by reframing the subject more broadly as a global cultural and political phenomenon.

If her overarching goal at the museum, as Ms. Antonelli once said, has been to provide the public with critical tools for judging the design surrounding us in everyday life, her immediate one was to conduct a reporter on what she called a whirlwind “carwash” tour of the show.

“You come in and immediately you get a glimpse of a little black dress,” said Ms. Antonelli, a brisk and no-nonsense New Yorker born and raised in Milan. In fact there are several little black dresses, by Arnold Scaasi, Christian Dior and Hubert de Givenchy. And there is a weighty wall text that, as she modestly suggested, “you might want to forgo.”

Head instead for the master list of 111 items chosen by the all-female curatorial team, each in its way an emblem of fashion’s multiple meanings. “To the right of the little black dress is a closet, and in it floating like precious objects are a Wonderbra and a pair of little white briefs,” Ms. Antonelli said. “We wanted to focus on the body, how you prepare it, how you project it into the world as a shape and how it is perceived.”

Probably as a defense against charges of frivolity and of turning an august museum into a dressmaker’s shop, the 1944 show looked at fashion largely through the lens of cultural anthropology, viewing women’s bodies as shapes that morph over time to accommodate shifting societal norms.

“In the 19th century, the woman has such a big butt, she looks almost like a Minotaur,” Ms. Antonelli said. “Yet by the time of the flapper in the 1920s, she has an almost concave figure, very flat-chested. So you go from having a mono-bosom to having no bosom at all.”

The welter of objects on view includes the hump dresses that Rei Kawakubo designed for a famous — and often misunderstood — 1997 Comme des Garçons collection titled “Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body” and opulent hand-woven brocade saris from the holy city of Varanasi in India; a gold 1974 jumpsuit by the American designer Stephen Burrows and Donna Karan’s stretchy monochrome “Seven Easy Pieces”; tunics designed for cosmic voyaging by Pierre Cardin and palazzo pants of a type considered too “radical’’ and suggestive for 1960s TV; and humble rubber Havaianas flip-flops along with the memorably torturous Armadillo shoes Alexander McQueen created for his spring 2010 “Plato’s Atlantis” collection.

“Those shoes are so disconcerting, they’re really instruments of torture,” Ms. Antonelli said of the footwear from the last full collection Mr. McQueen produced before his suicide.

“There were a lot of fascinating and unexpected discoveries for us in making the show,” she said. While runway fashion, for instance, is generally created for an imaginary ideal woman whose dress size is 2, the average American woman is more typically a size 16. “We really had to labor to get size 10 mannequins,” Ms. Antonelli said.

It was no easier locating dummies that resembled the actual shape of an American male. “We kept on having to tell the factory to shave off the muscles: ‘Let’s go from a six-pack to a four-pack to a two-pack,’” she said.

Moving swiftly through galleries where technicians gingerly placed door-knocker earrings in lighted vitrines and a conservator struggled with the ankle-strap on a platform shoe, Ms. Antonelli noted how often our hopes and anxieties find expression in our clothes.

The Jetsons utopianism common to fashions of the boom years of the late 20th century, for instance, mutated at the turning of the millennium. When in 1969 the Italian shoemaker Giancarlo Zanatta produced a chunky and endearing commercial Moon Boot, he was inspired by one NASA engineered during a time of boundless optimism about space exploration.

When Liz Ciokajlo and Maurizio Montalti came to design a Mars Boot prototype in 2017, interplanetary travel had long since gone from dream to reality and so, too, the prospects of an eventual exile from a despoiled planet Earth.

“The Mars Boot designers are looking at sustainability in space,” Ms. Antonelli said. Among their design concerns were methods for nurturing cilium and for recycling sweat.

“One of the most fascinating areas for us to examine was garments that amplify and expand another kind of space, your metaphysical one, far beyond the volume that defines your physical self,” Ms. Antonelli said, referring to wearable devices like the 1979 Sony Walkman and garments like the hoodie, whose interpretations have evolved radically from its original use as a humble piece of athletic wear.

“The analogy I like to use for these items is of children putting their hands in front of their eyes and imagining the world cannot see them anymore,” she said of devices and garments worn to shield ourselves as we move through the world. “For the wearer, a hoodie is a garment of intimacy and introspection, a protective armor. Yet seen from outside, and through a filter of prejudice, it can be transformed into a threatening garment. I’m referring very clearly to George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin here.”

If rigorous dichotomies are everywhere in “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” — rebellion and emancipation, modesty and exposure, power and its lack — so, too, are elements of humor and surprise.

Take the humble bucket hat. “The moment we started talking about it with the curators, someone said, ‘Oh, it’s the Williamsburg hipster hat,’” Ms. Antonelli said. “Someone else said, ‘It’s the temple hat for Israeli kibbutzim,’ and another person mentioned South African kids wearing them for their pantsula dancing, and another said, ‘What about Paddington Bear and LL Cool J?’”

The bucket hat, Ms. Antonelli suggested, turns out to be the Zelig of fashion: “It turns up in absolutely every culture everywhere.”