Most famous of the quips attributed to the Austrian-born American designer Rudi Gernreich — now best remembered for his unisex creations and the topless bathing suit — the dictum that “Fashion will go out of fashion.” As early as the 1960s, Gernreich foresaw a gradual winding down of the engine that had long propelled it: a pursuit of novelty and “modernity.”
“Is Fashion Modern?,” the first show the Museum of Modern Art has devoted to the subject since Bernard Rudofsky’s seminal exhibition “Are Clothes Modern?” in 1944, takes up the multiplicity of questions provoked by a design field that, despite playing an integral part in all of our lives, continues to defy easy comprehension.
Never mind whether fashion is “modern.” What precisely is fashion in the first place? Is it just garments? Or is it a complex system, or an art form, or a cluster of random typologies? Those, among other hefty issues, will be taken up by the ambitious (and welcome) MoMA show, curated by Paola Antonelli, senior curator of the department of architecture and design at the museum — and a seasoned design world gadfly. The show will open in October.
To trace the history of fashion through objects and their ancient archetypes, the show’s organizers dipped into the material slipstream and fished out 350 objects representing 111 “typologies.” Just how deliriously diverse those typologies are was made clear by the museum on Wednesday with the release of a list itemizing the things to be displayed. And what a list it is, from kaffiyehs to kilts, flip-flops to guayaberas, pencil skirts to moon boots, Speedos to Spanx.
There is, of course, the classic little black dress, though rendered variously by designers and labels as disparate as Arnold Scaasi, Versace, Rick Owens, Dior and Chanel. There are platform shoes from Delman, Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen, as well as some anonymous designers whose imaginations outstripped considerations as pedestrian as locomotion. There is, among the welter of things to be shown, a Rolex Datejust watch, some Lululemon Boogie pants and a pair of Olaf Daughters clogs no stereotypical Woody Allen character would once have been without. From someplace else on the spectrum of stereotyped wealth and consumption, there is a Birkin bag.
Hoodies and door-knocker earrings represent hip-hop style, or a variant of it. More conservative and demure forms of fashion expression take the shape of Thea Porter caftans, a pearl necklace, a button-down shirt and a bottle of Chanel No. 5. Another cause for eager anticipation is “Items: Is Fashion Modern?,” a publication bolstering the curators’ efforts to examine the profound effects that accessories and clothes have had on the culture of the 20th and 21st centuries. Perhaps as tantalizing as the learned essays and the weighty fashion discourse, there will also be a pop-up shop.