“Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life.” ~Bill Cunningham, late longtime NY Times fashion photographer .
I think Bill would have enthusiastically embraced “ITEMS: Is Fashion Modern?” the Museum of Modern Art’s current exhibition that examines selected iconic “armor” items as stand-alone objects to demonstrate their evolution such as the power icon of the 20th century—the proverbial three-piece suit. Once the mainstay of the executive boardroom it later morphed into the ‘zoot suit’ worn by blacks and Hispanics during the Jazz Age’s heyday. As the numbers of women advanced in the corporate world, the transgendered suit became both her fashion staple and pièce de résistance of power especially in the hands of designers such as Donna Karan’s soft-power Seven Easy Pieces. If you didn’t know initially Apple’s mastermind Steve Jobs, you could have been forgiven of overlooking the most powerful executive in the world who more resembled a Beat Generation holdover famously wearing the same black mock turtleneck, blue jeans and New Balance sneakers every day. What signals power today? …the winner is none other than the ubiquitous white T-shirt—paired with a hoodie and jeans even in the boardroom—that had a former life of humbler beginnings being worn by early 20th century laborers and later the defining garb of defiant teens rebelling against conformist 1950s (think “Rebel without a Cause”).
What was eye-opening for this viewer that in taking the long view, MOMA’s exhibit in an even way gives the uneven history of the ubiquitous T-shirt—its cotton harvested by black slaves, its cutting and sewing and assemblage by low-paid laborers, at home and abroad, and its environmental footprint throughout its lifecycle.
The People’s Studio
The brilliance of MOMA is the direction of current education director, Wendy Woon, in re-creating its People’s Studio, an all out hands-on studio, the brainchild of MOMA’s first educator, Vincent D’Amico. It is on a separate floor from the actual exhibit but is not to be missed for its sense of inventive and creative community. However, don’t overlook another community forming at the exhibit terminus–a congregative space to view colorful wall graphs as a score card of sorts for the fashion industry related to The UN ‘s Sustainable Development Goals. Yes, folks are looking at their devices. Yet there is also an element as a space once-removed from live theater, at least to me, what Ayad Akhtar, Pakistani-American playwright defines as an ‘antidote’ to digital dehumanization. Akhtar challenges American individualism by pointing out that “we herding animals are programmed at some very profound level to think and feel as one.” In the mix with my fellow viewers I did have a sense of oneness with a museum audience. Perhaps a stretch of live theater oneness that Akhtar describes but still….
NYTimes, Sunday December 31, 2017. Arts, page 5.