King of the Jungle: Chanel Signe du Lion
Curator's Corner, 1/21/2018

Some thoughts on Items: Is Fashion Modern?

This will not be a full review of MoMA's Items: Is Fashion Modern? since, as we know, my reviews are less than stellar.  But since the exhibition showcases several makeup items, I thought I'd share my perspective on their inclusion.  As the "curator" of an online cosmetics museum I imagine I looked at these objects differently than someone who has an extensive background in fashion or design would.  There have been tons of reviews for the show - some good, some not as positive - and honestly, I've done my best to tune out most of them since I wanted to form my own opinions.  I thought this art magazine had the best summary of the show's theme.  "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!'"

  MoMA ticket
I was pretty excited to see the show based on this description, but my interest goes back way further:  in December 2016 the curatorial assistant mentioned above emailed me asking for resources on the history of red lipstick.  My eyes almost popped out of my head when I got the email as I was so flattered, but of course I was my usual useless self - I gave her everything I knew, but there was nothing I could provide that she couldn't have found on her own. Nevertheless she was very nice and followed up with some questions about the particular lipstick that would be on display and also sent me an invitation to the exhibition preview (which I couldn't attend due to stupid work). 
Still can't believe it
 
Now that we understand the exhibition's general premise and an explanation of my own selfish interest, I can discuss the two makeup objects that were included*:  YSL's Touche Éclat highlighting/concealing pen, and an original tube of Revlon's Fire and Ice lipstick with the 582 Futurama case.  I didn't know that the Touche Éclat would be on display, so I was happy to see another beauty item had made the cut.  Finally I got to see makeup in a real museum, and one that's accessible to me geographically!
 
MoMA - Items: Is Fashion Modern
 
But when I got to the actual display for the Touche Éclat, which was in the first room upon entering the exhibition, my heart dropped.  Well, first I noticed the other items - the Touche Éclat was placed so far away from them I didn't even see it.  Then when I did notice a small thin strip of gold on the wall I thought it was a handle of some kind...then realized it was the precious Touche Éclat.

MoMA - Items: Is Fashion Modern

MoMA - Items: Is Fashion Modern

It was possibly the saddest installation of a makeup item I've ever seen, and this is coming from someone who displays makeup on crooked shelves with leftover tape still clinging to them in her bedroom.  It had barely any light on it and the label was on the floor.  No accompanying ad, no covering to protect it, nothing.

MoMA - Items: Is Fashion Modern
 
Touche Éclat deserved much better, yes?  And while initially I was pleased to see another makeup item as part of the illustrious 111, the display left me scratching my head as to why it was included.  Red lipstick I get - arguably that could be considered a pretty big part of modern fashion - but Touche Éclat, as famous as it is, just seemed like an odd choice.  Fashionista explains that it was part of the exhibition's "Body and Silhouette" section, which focused on "size and image".  The Touche Éclat was displayed next to a Wonderbra, Spanx and nylon stockings so I guess it was fitting the concept of underthings or "next to nothing" attire as well as the idea of using artificial, easily concealed aids to appear "naturally" beautiful, but I still saw no reason to include it, especially given its shabby treatment.

I walked around the rest of the exhibition, brushing off the disappointing installation and focusing on enjoying the garments.  It did serve the purpose of bringing together various modern fashion archetypes, most of which were immediately recognizable as ones you have in your own closet.  The New York Times and the Cut explain the appeal better than I can:  "With a Chanel gown here; two saris there; espadrilles and two beautiful Chinese cheongsam dresses elsewhere, Items mediates between high and low, East and West, couture and common. But it stays fairly low, creating an air of familiarity that is then enriched by the labels and catalog, which pinpoint origins, regional variations and technological advances...As a whole, the exhibit reads as a listicle for a senseless world; a catalogue of the things we carry. It helps us understand why we are the way we are and buy the things we buy; and then what those choices can mean."

MoMA - Items: Is Fashion Modern
 
Finally, I got to the Revlon Fire and Ice display.  How MoMA found this lipstick I don't know, as I've been searching for a vintage tube of Fire and Ice for years.  I'm assuming the magazine was borrowed from an archive.  (Funny side note:  The staff wanted to confirm the shade was an authentic vintage Fire and Ice and not a contemporary refill, but to see the label on the bottom of the tube they'd have to "click out" the lipstick from the Futurama case, a mechanism with which they were unfamiliar.  They expressed their concern to me that it might break, but I assured them they'd be fine taking the lipstick out and encouraged them to watch the vintage commercials demonstrating how the case works.  I also mentioned that to my knowledge, Revlon hasn't manufactured refills for the Futurama cases for decades, so whatever they had was most certainly from the 1950s-60s.)

MoMA - Items: Is Fashion Modern
 
Items: Is Fashion Modern - Revlon Fire and Ice
 
Items: Is Fashion Modern - Revlon Fire and Ice

Unfortunately this installation, for me, was only marginally better than the Touche Éclat.  The vitrine was far too big for the lipstick and ad, making them look rather lonesome.  Fire and Ice is probably the most iconic red lipstick and the most representative of everything associated with red lips in modern times, so they chose wisely; however, showing a couple other versions, such as MAC Ruby Woo or Chanel Pirate may not have hurt.  After all, there was a whole case of platform shoes instead of just one pair.  Even the Swatch got 3 different versions on display. 

Items: Is Fashion Modern - Revlon Fire and Ice
 
Items: Is Fashion Modern - Revlon Fire and Ice
Items: Is Fashion Modern - Revlon Fire and Ice
 
Placement was an issue once again, as the case was shoved unceremoniously in the corner by an emergency exit.  I understand not everything can be front and center - that's just the nature of gallery space and lord knows I have my frustrations setting things up at home - but I think there were any number of items that could have gone there instead.  Or perhaps leave that space empty, as they had the entire 6th floor of the museum to spread out everything.
 
MoMA - Items: Is Fashion Modern
 
Items: Is Fashion Modern - Revlon Fire and Ice
 
The unfortunate display of both of these items made me question why they were included in the first place, as their placement made them seem more of an afterthought.  I'm wondering if it made more sense to stick to actual clothing and shoes rather than try to include beauty items.  I'm assuming this is just my makeup-obsessed brain talking here, but as someone who firmly believes makeup is a rich enough field to have its own museum and exhibitions separate from fashion items, I think it might have been better to leave it out in this case.  I mean, I can absolutely see a fashion or design museum housing a gallery/exhibition devoted to cosmetics -  if there can't be a fully separate cosmetics museum I think it makes sense for makeup to fall under those umbrellas since there are such close connections between makeup and fashion and makeup and design - but for this particular exhibition, I feel as though beauty items should have been excluded since they encompass so much history and cultural significance on their own.  If you're not going to do a full exploration of red lipstick or, heck, even a group of iconic makeup items like Fire and Ice and Touche Éclat, don't bother having them tag along in a fashion/design exhibition.  One could argue that I shouldn't think this way, since every other item there is so important that it could easily have had its own exhibition (indeed, some pieces already have), not just the makeup.  Plus the whole point of the show was to bring together the most influential fashion items in modern history rather than focus exclusively on any one item.  And I'm not a fashion or design curator so clearly they had their reasons for including beauty items, and obviously, they are professionals and know exactly what they're doing.  But even though I don't have their credentials, I still feel entitled to my very humble opinion that sticking to clothing, bags and shoes might have made a more powerful statement about modern fashion.  I'm also wondering how perfume aficionados feel about the inclusion of Chanel No. 5.  I believe that fragrance, like makeup, is owed separate attention (and this museum and exhibition demonstrate that at least some people agree with me).
 
Did any of this stop me from buying the exhibition catalogue?  Of course not, as catalogues are my favorite museum souvenirs.  Plus I figured any sliver of cosmetics history would be helpful in terms of building the Museum's library, and the catalogue does feature several nicely researched pages on red lipstick and Touche Éclat.  Even after I read the section on the latter object, I still couldn't figure out why it was included, but...it's something.

MoMA - Items: Is Fashion Modern catalogue

Overall, Items was a thoughtful and inspired show, and I enjoyed the democratic nature of it, i.e. how most of the pieces were everyday ones owned by average folks.  The fact that it wasn't focused on couture or historic items made it approachable and relatable.  Mind you, I love seeing rare historical clothing and high fashion garments, but this was a nice change of pace that looked at fashion in a more universal way and made viewers ponder the items they wear (a white t-shirt) or covet (in the case of the Birkin bag) on a deeper level.  I also was impressed by how cohesively the curators were able to select and organize over 100 greatly significant fashion items from across all cultures and classes without getting them jumbled in a haphazard mess.  Having said that, I maintain that beauty products should have been left out.  What's funny about this is that MoMA offers the opportunity for us non-curators to pretend we're in charge and weigh in on what should have been included that wasn't.  Looks like I went in the opposite direction and thought about what should have been excluded.  Oh, and in terms of "networking", I've long lost hope that anyone at MoMA will contact me again or inquire about my possible involvement in a makeup exhibition should they ever do one, given that I kinda blew it in terms of providing useful information about red lipstick's history, but I guess it's good they at least contacted me in the first place.  I suppose I could always reach out with a really good pitch for an exhibition if I could get it together somehow, as I still have all their contact info! *evil laugh*

Thoughts?  Did you see the show?  It's only open till January 28th so if you're thinking about it, hop to it!

 

*There was also a case featuring different nail art designs.  I didn't even know where to start with that so I left it out of this post entirely.

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Comments

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Shybiker

In the past decade, I've seen a half-dozen excellent fashion exhibitions at prominent fine art museums in various cities (e.g., Boston; Toronto; New York). They blew my mind. So I was especially disappointed when I saw this one in my hometown. The collection was thin and weakly connected. The presentation was uninviting and un-educational. The entire show was a sad failure in my opinion. Your comments are all true and sound. It seems like you are trying to see this in its best possible light, but unfortunately it was too dim.

MM Curator

Interesting perspective! I know a lot of other folks felt the same way - it just didn't really have the cache of other shows. I also agree that it didn't really connect the items as well as it could have. I still say it could have been way messier than it was, but trying to thematically link 111 items...well, maybe it wasn't the best idea? I don't know. I do know that I was slightly underwhelmed and that I think makeup should have been left out.
Thank you so much for reading and weighing in! Your insight is always appreciated. :)

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