The Ethical Focus Of MoMA’s ‘Is Fashion Modern?’ Exhibition

by: Courtney Sanders | 2 months ago | Features

Image: the 111 items selected for MoMA's 'Is Fashion Modern?' exhibition.

If you follow us on Instagram (and if you don’t, please do!), you’ll know (we’re oversharers, sorry not sorry for spamming your Instagram Stories!), that we’re currently in the States, scouring this part of the world for the best ethical fashion labels to introduce to the site and to you, and connecting with the dedicated community of responsible fashion designers, institutions, and media outlets that exists here – no ethical fashion website is an island. The trip has turned out to be pretty well-timed, too. Modern Meadow, a bio-tech company which has spent the past five years developing a non-animal leather, has recently opened a showroom to introduce the media and the public to the concept. More on that later, including the answer to questions like ‘is non-animal leather, which is derived from the same building blocks as animal leather, and looks and feels exactly the same as animal leather, vegan?’. MoMA has also recently opened its exhibition, ‘Is Fashion Modern?’, a curation of 111 fashion objects that define fashion in the 20th Century. 

Image: 'Fleece', a.k.a. the Patagonia Synchilla Pullover, was featured in the exhibition. Conveniently, we sell these here

Fashion is more than consumer objects though. Coco Chanel said, “Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening”. Whether we like it or not, society influences what we wear, what we wear affects how we interact with society and the individuals in it, and what we wear as collectives, whether those be niche or mainstream, defines society. Think about punk in Britain in the ‘70s: Margaret Thatcher’s conservative political policies alienated a generation of young people, who reacted by subverting symbols of political power like safety pins and kilt pins to represent their rejection of the establishment, which resulted in the birth of punk, which has influenced society in myriad ways ever since. 

Image: 'Breton Shirt' was featured in the exhibition. As a wardrobe staple, we sell a number of these, too! Shop our favourites from Patagonia here, and from Bon here (both made from certified organic cotton).

The curation of the ‘Is Fashion Modern?’ is a profound explanation of the multifaceted significance of fashion items. Many of the pieces included in the exhibition don’t seem like much from the outset: ’White T-Shirt’ for instance, ‘Fanny Pack’ for lols, and ‘Tevas’ for ‘I mean I know they’re practical but isn’t that it?’. But these items are imbued with the layers of significance they deserve through their compartmentalisation in the exhibition in three ways: how they interact with our bodies; how they influenced and continue to influence fashion and, more broadly, design; and the fashion movement or part of fashion history they belong to. So, for example, an outfit from Red Kawakubo’s 1973 collection for Comme des Garçons, Body Meets Dress-Dress Meets Body, is a set of clothing, and it is also placed in the exhibition alongside a selection of undergarments, to demonstrate how it challenged body ideals, how it (from the exhibition notes) “accommodates and celebrates a body that refuses to submit to the streamlining impulses of fashion”. 

Image; The 'White T-shirt' was featured in the exhibition. We sell a bunch of certified organic cotton versions, for all your all day every day requirements.

In a conversation between the exhibition’s curator Paola Antonelli and Peter Saville (to be a fly on the wall while this was happening) in Document Journal, Antonelli discusses this multifaceted meaning with specific reference to the turtleneck and to the hoodie. “Two items in particular that have become revolutionary and almost semantically charged, at least from an American standpoint, are the turtleneck and the hoodie. Historically, the turtleneck stands for rebelliousness, for emancipation, for modesty, for arrogance, and for humility. It’s the staple of Angela Davis and the Black Panthers, it’s the staple of Steve Jobs, but it’s also the staple of Orthodox Jewish women and beatniks. The hoodie is even more charged. I have this theory that I coined a few years ago: the existence maximum. At the beginning of the 20th century, the German architects had the theory of the existence minimum. They were trying to fit all of the functions [of a house] within dwellings that were small but that could be standardized and erase differences between classes. Instead, existence maximum started, in my opinion, with the Walkman and headsets. They are little garments or objects that expand your metaphysical space. You could be like an anchovy in a subway car, but with your hoodie and your headset on your space is much bigger. It’s this isolation, introversion, and the attempt to protect yourself from other people’s gaze. At the same time, it’s become threatening to those on the outside who think that not seeing your face is a sign that you’re going to do something dangerous.”

Image: 'Tevas' were included in the exhibition as an example of simple and revolutionary design. We sell the Original Universal Sandals and the Original Universal Premier Sandals, for all your summer adventuring!

Technological developments were a through-line of the exhibition, too, and as we’re currently focussed on technological developments that reduce the fashion industry’s environmental and human impact, ‘Is Fashion Modern?’ chose several objects for this reason. For example, the Patagonia Synchilla Snap Pullover is a ‘Fleece’, which represented a textile technological development when it was first designed in 1986, but the exhibition also pointed out Patagonia’s overall dedication to impact reduction and what that means from a fashion, social, and environmental perspective. From the exhibition notes: “By pursuing new material technology and encouraging new behaviours aimed at reducing our environmental impact, such brands recalibrate not only their own approaches but also consumers’ expectations – and through them, the whole fashion industry”. At the end of the exhibition attendees were also presented with a wall-size chart, listing the most ubiquitous products in the exhibition (the ‘White T-shirt', ‘Dr. Martens’, Levi’s ‘501s’), and how they are tracking with regards to meeting the Seventeen Sustainable Development Goals Set By The United Nations. For example, in the column that intersects Levi’s 501s and Chemicals and Treatment, the chart states: “Since launching the Water<Less process in 2011, Levi’s has saved more than 1 billion litres of water”. 

‘Is Fashion Modern?’ gives ubiquitous fashion items the social, political, technological, and even artistic, significance they deserve. Moreover, it gives the ethical fashion movement similar importance, by placing impact minimisation through habitual, design, and technological changes and developments at its centre. Let’s hope ‘Is Fashion Modern?’ travels to Australasia some time soon (although I wonder what the carbon footprint of that would be). 

We've proud to point out that we sell a number of the items and labels considered worthy of inclusion by the exhibition, from the 'White T-shirt' and the 'Breton Shirt' to Patagonia, Teva, and Levi's Water<Less. Shop a selection of the key pieces from the exhibition that we also sell in the carousel below!

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