Paola Antonelli talks us through six design classics from Items: Is Fashion Modern?

28 September 2017

A-POC Le Feu, by Issey Miyake and Dai Fujiwara, from the Issey Miyake spring/summer 1999 collection. Photograph by Yasuaki Yoshinaga. Courtesy A-POC LE FEU, 1999 Spring Summer ISSEY MIYAKE Paris Collection. Photo: Yasuaki Yoshinaga

On 1 October, The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York will host its first exhibition dedicated to fashion since 1944. Items: Is Fashion Modern? will consist of 111 garments and accessories that have had a profound effect on the world over the last century. Filling the entire sixth floor of the museum, the exhibition explores fashion thematically through items which are all powerful and enduring manifestations of the ways in which fashion – a crucial field of design – touches everyone, everywhere. Items is organised by Paola Antonelli, senior curator alongside curatorial assistant Michelle Fisher.

The exhibition is something Paola Antonelli has wanted to do for over six years. Historically, fashion has not been part of the Museum’s remit, in great part because of previous curators in the architecture and design department explains Antonelli “[they] perceived the seasonality of fashion as antithetical to a history of modern design that, traditionally, is based on a set of principles that also include timelessness.” The impetus for the exhibition essentially comes from Antonelli’s belief that, in reality, it is quite the opposite: “there is not a complete history of design without fashion, a very important subset of the design field as a whole. This exhibition is long overdue!”

The title of the exhibition reprises the question that architect and curator Bernard Rudofsky raised with his 1944 MoMA exhibition Are Clothes Modern?, which is the only other instance of MoMA fully addressing this field of design. For the Items exhibition, Rudofsky’s question provides a springboard from which to “consider the ways in which fashion is designed, manufactured, marketed, distributed, worn, and disposed of today.” The installation includes various different sections including an area devoted to the mutating idea of the body and silhouette as well one devoted to new technologies and visions of the future. This structure of categorisation is to reflect how, like other forms of design, fashion exists within a complex system that involves politics and economics as much as it involves style, technology, and culture.

The 111 typologies are presented are the form that originally made them significant alongside other contextual materials – images or videos – that trace the item’s history over the last century. Several of these typologies, such as the Little Black Dress, are represented by more than one example in order to fully appreciate the breadth of the item’s cultural impact meaning that the actual total number of items in the exhibition is much closer to 350.

Part of the goal of the exhibition is to speculate about the future through the inclusion of commissions and loaned pieces inspired by advancements in technology, social dynamics, aesthetics, or political awareness. This includes the work of both emerging and established figures in the fields of fashion, design, science and technology. This part of the exhibition “was a way to imagine how some of these typologies might work and develop in years and decades and centuries to come, which is another consideration we would like visitors to engage with during their visit to the exhibition,” says Antonelli, adding “we want to ask people to consider not only what is fashion’s past and present, but also where fashion (and thus economies, and politics, and societies) is going now?”

We spoke to Paola Antonelli about a selection of the objects included in the exhibition and the history that made each item worth showcasing.

Nike Air Force 1s

In 1982 the Nike Air Force 1 made its NBA debut, launching a footwear franchise that would be the blueprint for status sneakers for decades to come. The Air Force 1 was the first full-sole basketball shoe to feature Nike’s Air technology, in development since 1979. High performing and visually arresting, it attracted amateur basketball players, who wore the shoe at street-ball tourneys in the urban centres that were also home to the burgeoning hip-hop scene. It soon became the sneaker of record for these communities, earning tributes in song, beguiling collectors, and sparking numerous imitations. As it spread as a street-style staple along the I-95 (the highway connecting Baltimore to New York and other East Coast cities), sneakerheads sought out rarer models. Over the past thirty years, Nike has issued nearly 2,000 versions, from mass-market releases to ultra-exclusive celebrity collaborations. We will acquire a pair from 1982 from the first important “drop.”

Red Lipstick

“Revlon’s 1952 Fire and Ice advertisement featured model Dorian Leigh in a sequin-encrusted evening gown, enveloped by a billowing red cloak. Her image, shot by photographer Richard Avedon, was accompanied by a personality questionnaire intimating that the lipstick and matching nail polish were for bold, adventurous, emancipated women.” 

Sports Jersey

“In the United Kingdom, the replica industry for professional athletes’ sports jerseys kicked off in 1974 when the Leicester-based knitwear company Admiral struck a deal with the Football Association. Dallas-based sporting-goods store owner Norm Charney followed suit when, in 1985, he became licensed to sell authentic NFL merchandise and, later, baseball, hockey, and basketball jerseys. Corporations like Nike and Champion co-opted Charney’s success, answering a yearning among sports fans to embody their favorite players. Brazilian football hero Pelé’s jersey is a worldwide favorite, as is the NBA’s Michael Jordan’s. The growing popularity of professional women’s sports has introduced jerseys within women’s fashion, too. In the 1990s, the sports jersey became a staple among hip-hop artists––the Notorious B.I.G.’s Bad Boy jersey in the 1994 “Juicy” video is an example, as are Mýa’s and Eve’s fitted dresses and tops––and crossed into streetwear. When 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose not to stand during the U.S. national anthem, beginning in August 2016, he explained his decision as a protest against police brutality toward black citizens. By October, his jersey was a bestseller among sports fans and a more general populace, too.”

Fanny Pack

“The fanny pack was adopted by everyone from tourists and suburban parents to fitness fanatics and chic urbanites from the 1970s onward. In the 1980s it became an essential accessory of the “MTV generation,” influenced by the active dance styles of the new music idols. Fashion houses like Chanel and Gucci incorporated their logos into the accessory. The bulbous shape of Vivienne Westwood’s 1996 bum bag for Louis Vuitton referenced the body-augmenting Victorian bustle while its incorporation of the famed Louis Vuitton monogram embraced the item’s promotional use.”

Converse All Stars

“The Converse Rubber Shoe Company released the All Star in 1917 as a basketball shoe. With its lightweight construction, flexible rubber sole, form-fitting canvas upper, and a canvas lining that reduced chafing, this high-top sneaker soon became the shoe of choice for early twentieth-century basketball players. In 1921 amateur basketball player Chuck Taylor became a salesman and ambassador for the All Star. He proposed design revisions, including the ankle medallion that has borne his name since 1932. The All Star was the official shoe of the 1936 U.S. Olympic basketball team, and was adopted by the U.S. Air Force during World War II. But by the later decades of the century, the All Star’s ubiquity on the court was challenged by competing models, including the Adidas Superstar (1969) and Nike’s Air Force 1 (1982). The overwhelming appeal of the All Star to a market of casual wearers prompted the 1957 release of a low-cut style. In the 1970s and ’80s, the shoe gained a new following among counterculture groups, including punk rockers and skateboarders, and a place within Chicano cholo/a style.”    

Chanel No 5

“Seeking to streamline and revolutionise women’s scent, as she had done with women’s clothing, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel commissioned chemist Ernest Beaux to reproduce the fresh smell of soap-clean skin. Debuting in 1921, Chanel No. 5 was innovative stylistically as well as technologically – it was the first fragrance to use aldehydes, synthetic molecules that boost scent and allow it to linger without degrading, to better suit the longer day of a busy, multitasking modern woman. Equally revolutionary were the simple name (the scent was the fifth option Beaux presented to Chanel), the spare label, and the bottle, inspired by pharmaceutical vials. The bottle has remained almost unchanged and is considered a modern design classic, as is the scent, which has become a staple perfume for many women.” 

The exhibition opens this Sunday at The Museum of Modern Art where visitors will be able to see all these items as well as the objects and garments included in the pictures below.


One-Star Perfecto Leather Motorcycle Jacket, late 1950’s. Courtesy of Schott NYC


Suit and tie interpreted for Items: Is Fashion? Modern by Kristin-Lee Moolman and IB Kamara. © 2017 Kristin-Lee Moolman & IB Kamara. Image courtesy The Museum of Modern Art, New York.


Chinos, coppola, and Dr. Martens interpreted for Items: Is Fashion Modern? by Monika Mogi. © 2017 Monika Mogi. Image courtesy The Museum of Modern Art, New York.


Levi Strauss & Co. waist overalls, 1890. Courtesy Levi Strauss & Co. Archives (San Francisco).


Chiefs of the Agotime Traditional Area during the Agotime Kente Festival wearing silk, cotton or rayon Kente cloth, Kpetoe, Volta Region, Ghana. Photographed by Philippe J. Kradolfer.. Courtesy Philippe J. Kradolfer (Nene Dunenyo I)


The Body Meets Dress—Dress Meets Body collection by Comme des Garçons interpreted for Items: Is Fashion Modern? by Catherine Losing. © 2017 Catherine Losing. Image courtesy The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

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Ruby Boddington

Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor.

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