Paola Antonelli’s hyper-awareness of fashion is no coincidence. During the late 70s and early 80s, the Italian-born Senior Curator worked after school as a goffer in the press office at Giorgio Armani. “I occasionally spent time with Armani in the showroom, especially during Fashion Week. I learned how things really worked beyond the mythology and mystique,” she says about her early introduction to the business of fashion design.
Antonelli moved to New York in 1994 to work for The Museum of Modern Art but was puzzled as to the absence of fashion in their archives. MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design’s collection contains 32,000 objects ranging from video games, furniture, cars, emojis, posters, typefaces, to a helicopter but no garments except for some random pieces including a Fortuny dress. The idea that fashion is based on the ephemeral was contrary to the timeless objects being disseminated by the founding curators of the Department of Architecture and Design. “I accepted this,” says Antonelli, but kept ruminating about the modernity of certain garments including the Fruit of the Loom White T-Shirt, which she incorporated into “Humble Masterpieces” an exhibition she curated in 2004.
Antonelli’s “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” presents 111 examples addressing fashion stereotypes and archetypes that were influential in the past 100 years, while emphasizing function, politics, economics, technology, gender, athletics and aesthetics that go beyond pure form. Architect and curator Bernard Rudofsky’s 1944 MoMA show “Are Clothes Modern?” was the underlying inspiration for this show.
Strangely, this was the only other instance at MoMA where an exhibition on fashion was held. Rudofsky was quoted saying “It is strange that dress has been generally denied the status of art, when it is actually a most happy summation of esthetic, philosophic and psychological components.”
This exhibition is not a typical compendium of styles and trends but a considered checklist that addresses issues relating to fashionable socio-cultural dress; the Pashmina shawl, the dashiki (West African tunic), the kippah (yarmulke), the Burkini and the hijab and Capsters, sports headgear for Muslim women, to name a few. “There are some humble masterpieces,” says Antonelli, referring to items like Converse All Star sneakers, Levi’s 501s and a Brooks Brothers Oxford button-down shirt, plus accessories, from the original Sony Walkman (1979) to a prototype of the Fitbit Flex.
There’s no shortage of iconic fashion included in the show. A dress from Commes des Garcons’ Body Meets Dress—Dress Meets Body Collection (1997) will be shown alongside a Diane von Furstenberg Wrap Dress (1974). Also among the 350 objects on view are Maison Margiela’s Tabi Boot, based on traditional Japanese socks dating to the 15th century and showcased with five examples designed by Margiela ranging from 1989-2008.
Along with siting haute couture, Antonelli pays homage to her Milanese youth with the inclusion of three Armani suits (1990 and 1993). Armani, now 83 recently said about his earlier approach to tailoring men’s and women’s suits, “Perhaps I provoked a revolution when I started to experiment with deconstruction. I decided to strip out the pads and stuffing and make clothes that were more fluid, more modern.”
There are 28 “neotypes,” with 19 prototypes commissioned exclusively for the show. An interpretation of the “Mao Jacket” by Marni’s Creative Director Francesco Risso will be presented along with burgeoning designer Lucy Jones’s pantyhose from her Seated collection. “I believe pantyhose are completely iconic, specifically in the color nude. Given my current work which includes designing for those with disabilities, I realize many garments are actually impractical, uncomfortable and often times difficult to maneuver,” says Jones whose student project was awarded the Parson’s Womenswear Designer of the Year in 2015.
“The last item we added #111 was sunscreen,” admits Antonelli about the process, which began with a running list of garments that have changed the world. “I am much more aware of the ethics of fashion and am trying to live with that awareness. I’m hoping the exhibition will inspire people to be more mindful and to instill in them a consciousness about the impact and background of every single garment they choose in their life.”