A new exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art takes stock of a century of fashion design.

At the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, fashion has been put under a microscope—as have the design elements, social ramifications, and political context that come with it. Featuring items from the quotidian to the luxury, Items: Is Fashion Modern? is the museum’s first serious look at the fashion industry since 1944’s Are Clothes Modern?

“With today’s question—Is Fashion Modern?–we shift the focus from the individual to the collective sphere and highlight not only the ways in which clothing is made, but the ways in which it might be made,” read the exhibition text. The exhibition contains 111 items of clothing and accessories that have made a significant impact on the world, charting an anthropological journey through the 21st century.

“Fashion has often been sidelined and looked down upon as ephemeral, decorative, and downright vacuous in design and other academic realms, a perception we hope to address and recalibrate in our exhibition,” wrote MoMA curator Paola Antonelli on Medium. “One thing is clear: it is impossible to imagine a design history without fashion.”

Several key items from pop culture were on display, including the Adidas Superstar sneaker, the Walkman, the little black dress (LBD) and Ray-Bans. Athleisure made a brief appearance, with early pieces from Patagonia and Gore-Tex. And creative juxtapositions, such as the 1990s fanny pack next to the Louis Vutton “Faux Cul” bag, showed how trends can cut through class and culture.

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Copyright 2017 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Martin Seck.

Highbrow to high-tech

Several exhibitions showed new and innovative methods of production in fashion. A wall of shift dresses contained examples ranging from a 1960s Lily Pulitzer dress to a 2016 Bolt Threads dress spun from artificial spider silk. Commissioned by Stella McCartney, the one-of-a-kind dress used Bolt Threads’ vegan-friendly silk created from yeast and was commissioned especially for the exhibition.

“When I first started in fashion design I never thought there would be a day like this, where we would arrive with such an important moment when technology is fused with fashion, one of the most harmful industries to the environment,” McCartney told WWD. “For me, I’ve always struggled with the use of silk and finding Bolt has been a life-changing and career-changing moment for me.”

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Though designers have always grappled with the future, their offerings have become increasingly high-tech. An exhibit featuring the 1970s Moon Boot, a futuristic footwear inspired by the moon landing, stood next to the Mars Boot, a project by footwear designer Liz Ciokajlo and design consultancy OurOwnsKIN crafted partially from fungal mycelium, to explore what design materials might one day be grown in space. Similarly, a 1950s-era biker jacket was paired with an Asher Levine prototype jacket outfitted with LED lights that could signal lane changes and more.

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The politics of fashion

No exhibit on the sociological impact of fashion would be complete without addressing politics. Items wasted no time in immersing audiences immediately in contemplating gender dynamics. Among the first items on view was the 1966 Yves Saint Laurent Le Smoking tuxedo suit for women, which “was aesthetically radical yet reinforced the demarcation between genders.” Near it was a jumpsuit from Rudi Gernreich’s Unisex Project (1970), which explored “future emancipation and possibility, offering fluidity with its nonbinary approach to gender.”

The hoodie, a red Champion sweatshirt from the 1970s, explored the role the item played in verious different movements. In the eighties, the hoodie was associated with rappers like the Wu-Tang Clan; by the early 2000s, it became a symbol for “hacker culture,” and a staple of Mark Zuckerburg’s wardrobe. In 2012, it became a symbol of the resistance against police brutality following the shooting of Trayvon Martin.

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Copyright 2017 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Martin Seck.
 
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Yves Saint Laurent's Le Smoking

Other items included the doek, a headscarf worn in South Africa that was at the center of a 2016 controversy when broadcast journalist Nontobeko Sibisi was cut from a broadcast for the “unprofessional” accessory. Users on social media rallied behind Sibisi in an outcry that came to be known as #DoekGate. And four sports jerseys on display included Colin Kaepernick’s, the football player who began the protests currently roiling the NFL.

“We hope that visitors to Items will see in these sports jerseys not only the blood, sweat, and tears of their original wearers but also the complex synthesis of aesthetics, personal choice, collective style, politics, business, race, gender, marketing, labor, and technology that are embodied by their reproductions,” wrote the MoMA.

Tech futures

The future of fashion was also on display at the MoMA, with several pieces showcasing cutting-edge technology. “Lab on the Skin,” an invention from Northwestern University that adheres to the skin, detecting chemicals released through sweat to analyze key biomarkers. The flexible, low-cost device changes color when exposed to certain chemicals.

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A graphic tee from Zoa by Modern Meadow represented the first brand to use Modern Meadow’s biofabricated leather, created from lab-grown and plant-sourced collagen. And the A-POC Queen Textile, from Issey Miyake, was manufactured using computer technology to create clothing from a single piece of thread.

“Will fashion be able to afford to keep the same old methodology?” Miyake said. “I have endeavored to experiment to make fundamental changes to the system of making clothes.”

As Items shows, though some trends are timeless, the future of clothing design will likely look radically different from the present. As society evolves, so to do the structures, processes and meanings surrounding fashion.

Items: Is Fashion Modern? is on display through January 28. Main image:  White T-shirt. Image courtesy Shutterstock/SFIO CRACHO