The New MoMA Fashion Exhibit Isn’t Afraid To Get Political

Image courtesy The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

And those are its most powerful moments

When Museum of Modern Art senior curator Paola Antonelli first arrived in New York City from Milan 23 years ago, there was only one fashion item in the entirety of the museum: an early-20th-century Delphos dress by Mariano Fortuny. So, Antonelli took it upon herself to compile a list of “garments that changed the world," pieces that would fit into a collection of modern design. She started off simple: the white T-shirt, a pair of Levi's 501s, Converse sneakers, but the collection eventually ballooned into over 400 items, which was then edited down to 99, before being increased to 111 final pieces. Starting Sunday, October 1, visitors to MoMA will get to see them all.

“Items: Is Fashion Modern?" is the first fashion exhibit to be held at the MoMA since 1944's “Are Clothes Modern?" by architect and curator Bernard Rudofsky. Now, 73 years later, Rudofsky's creation acts as a springboard for Antonelli's brainchild and both are meant to examine individuals' relationships with the clothes they wear every day. “We wanted to make sure that it would be clear to everyone that this is a fashion show, indeed, but it's first and foremost a design show that takes fashion as its focus," Antonelli says. “So, fashion is the system and clothes are the pieces inside."

The items on display run the gamut, but what they have in common is they've all had some kind of influence on the world over the past century. You'll see Nike Air Force 1s alongside shift dresses, turtlenecks adjacent to Calvin Klein briefs, fanny packs in the next room over from a bottle of Chanel No. 5. But you'll also see cultural items like kippahs, dashikis, and burkinis. For the most part, though, you'll find pieces that you can also find in your own closet. There's not much ~fashun~ outside of rows of little black dresses from famous designers and a slip dress designed by Richard Nicoll that changes colors. A Costume Institute exhibit this is not. Instead, it's tame, approachable, and, most importantly, informative.

For some items, Antonelli and her team of curators went out to find the archetypes of, say, the first capri or leather jacket. She wanted to provide context. “We believe that the past is very important for the making of the modern and contemporary," Antonelli says. “Nothing is ever being invented yesterday, there's always a predecessor." Seeing how cyclical fashion is, this exhibit is just as much for the millennial as it is for their baby boomer parents.

Of course, there are some pieces that were left off the list. “I noticed there wasn't a wedding dress," one woman in the audience brought up during a discussion between Antonelli and Glenn Lowry, the director of MoMA, after the press preview that took place on Tuesday. “Why didn't you include Fortuny pleats?" another wondered. Antonelli said she wanted to leave the list open-ended, to allow visitors to consider for themselves what pieces of clothing they believe are worthy of that 112th or 113th spot.

But “Items: Is Fashion Modern?" is at its most powerful when it gets political. In between down jackets and after observing different iterations of platform shoes, viewers are met with a red Champion hoodie placed on a dark gray background. The modern hoodie was born in the 1930s, the plaque reads, and has been adopted by athletes, skaters, rappers, and Facebook founders since. But, more recently, it became a symbol of injustice when Trayvon Martin was murdered by George Zimmerman while wearing one. “[Hoodies] gives you the false impression of being invisible," Antonelli says. “It's like when a child puts their hand in front of their face and thinks that their dad and mom cannot see him. But it's a double-edged sword because you know what happens: You think you're invisible, other people think you're threatening, and then tragedy strikes."

A little further into the exhibit, you'll also find a Colin Kaepernick jersey on display, which Antonelli says was acquired a year ago and holds even greater significance today. Even further, at the very end, is a plain white T-shirt. It looks innocent enough but, as the notes remind museumgoers, the piece of clothing “also allows us to interrogate the lopsided power relations that are part of its DNA, including those that shaped the cotton industry, built on the backs of enslaved people in this country and beyond; the labor involved in its cutting and sewing; and its environmental footprint throughout its life cycle."

If you backtrack a bit, you'll find a pair of door knocker earrings on display next to a pair of monogrammed Gucci and Louis Vuitton jackets. In a timely move, the incident between Harlem designer Dapper Dan and Gucci was mentioned on the display card for the latter. For the former, the rise of door knockers is attributed to black women. Text addressing appropriation is placed in between the two. It reads: “When certain items are worn without acknowledgment of those who have historically contributed to shaping their meaning, their value can become diluted, reduced, or even misrepresented."

There was a point, during the discussion between Antonelli and Lowry, when a woman raised her hand to make a remark: “I was really impressed with the ghetto stuff that you had, the hip-hop stuff and the ghetto stuff which was certainly the way that 20th- and 21st-century fashion did change…" My eyes locked with the woman behind me as I strained to get a look at who, exactly, was making such an inane and offensive comment. The woman behind me grimaced, clearly uncomfortable. But she couldn't have been as uncomfortable as I was. Outside of the security guards, I was one of the only black people at the preview.

Yes, the woman who made the comment about the "ghetto stuff" was white, but that's not, exactly, what bothered me. What bothered me most is that the comment implied that including these items was a gracious move on Antonelli's part. Like, she was doing the black community a favor by allowing door knockers and fitted baseball caps and du-rags to be a part of the exhibit. But what she failed to recognize was that Antonelli was merely reflecting history—and accurately, which doesn't happen often. Historically, people of color have been influencing the fashion industry for centuries. Antonelli is merely crediting them properly—a rarity, but not one requiring gratitude.

“I think it's important to notice that many single, individual items in the show enable us to talk about social issues that are maybe not as magnified and as present as the NFL protests right now, but they're still subtle and powerful," Antonelli says. “We want people to come into the exhibition recognizing that anything that they wear any time can be a symbol of the changing world." Every item of clothing you wear has a backstory, and this is a perfect time to learn it.

Check out some of the pieces from the exhibit ahead.

Image courtesy The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Levi Strauss & Co. waist overalls, 1890.

Nail polish is for novices

Fashion label The Blonds is known for its high-intensity looks that you'd only wear if you wanted to stand out (and who doesn't?). For its runway shows, wild press-on nails are the beauty step that can't be missed. So, since the brand has partnered with CND since it was founded, we thought it best to get prepped for the show with Jan Arnold, CND's co-founder.

See why you should take your nail look from a zero to a 10, in the video above.

Shot by Charlotte Prager
Edited by Gretta Wilson
Produced by Alexandra Hsie
Production Assistant: Polina Buchak
Featuring Jan Arnold of CND Nails and The Blonds



Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

It would've been nice if someone said the word "fat"

Back in November, Rebel Wilson claimed to be the first plus-sized lead in a romantic comedy when she appeared on Ellen to talk about her role in Isn't It Romantic. Wilson was not only wrong, but she was—even if inadvertently—erasing the work of Black plus-size actresses like Queen Latifah and Mo'Nique, both of whom have expansive resumes that include romantic comedies.

Wilson's comment isn't the first example of white women taking up a little too much space in the fat acceptance ethos. It's actually quite common. But there is a reason why women like Wilson—women who are blonde, pretty, successful, and white—get put front and center in calls for body positivity. In the same way that feminism—the movement from which body positivity was born—has often failed to address how gender intersects with other identities like race and class; so, too, has body positivity been championed as a cause for otherwise privileged women. And that's why it's no surprise that Isn't It Romantic, which aspires to be both a spot-on mockery of rom-coms and a celebration of body positivity, is actually a perfect example of how very white both the movie genre and the body positivity movement tend to be.

In the film, Wilson plays Natalie, an architect based in New York, who is single and plus-sized—the archetypal rom-com underdog. Very early on in the movie, she endures the double humiliation of both being hit by a runaway food cart and then accosted by its owner for not stopping it with her "cement truck"-like body. At work, Natalie is similarly disrespected: The office manager hands off troubleshooting tasks to Natalie; another colleague always tasks Natalie to throw out his trash; her assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin) won't stop watching movies (rom-coms, naturally) while in the office; and Natalie is so afraid to present her ideas for more innovative parking garage designs that she isn't even widely known in the firm as an architect, and is treated like an intern.

But is Natalie just a doormat? Or is it that she isn't asking for what she wants? And isn't very nice about not getting it? If Natalie's life is any example, the bar on suffering is set pretty low for white women. In her personal life, Natalie lives alone with her dog, and seems to be pretty well-off, financially; her best friend is actually her slacker assistant, Whitney, and she's close with another coworker, Josh (Adam Devine), who gives Natalie constant emotional support. She's decidedly anti-romantic, having been told by her mother from a young age that there's no such thing as real-life fairy tales; she's level-headed and practical. But also, she's filled with self-loathing. This leads her to be crass, sarcastic, and disconnected from people. And it was this last part that was hard for me. As a fat Black woman who grew up broke, does not have an assistant, and would get fired if I didn't do my job well, it was hard, if not impossible, to root for her.

For Natalie, though, everything changes when she bangs her head while fighting off a mugger. Her mundane life is tinted through rosy rom-com glasses. Suddenly, all the things that sucked about her life are gone, and everything is beautiful and perfect. But was her life so bad before? It didn't really seem to be.

And yet, looking around the theater at the mostly white, female audience, I accepted that my feelings didn't seem to be shared. But that almost seems to be by design; this feels like a movie for a white, female audience. There is only one person of color in the movie who even has a name: It's Isabelle (Priyanka Chopra), who shows up about halfway through the film—after everything has been rom-com filtered—as a yoga ambassador and swimsuit model. But a name is all Isabella has. A supporting character at best, she doesn't have any connection to anyone other than her white boyfriend, and is sketchily drawn. We learn nothing of her familial or ethnic background, and, even when she is shown at her wedding, there is nobody from her family celebrating with her. This huge oversight is particularly bizarre, given that Natalie has already bemoaned the lack of diversity in romantic films.

Another huge oversight? The presence of the word "fat." I don't think I heard it used a single time. Natalie only references her weight indirectly, by commenting on the appearance of straight-sized women; when talking about her own body, the word "fat" is replaced with "girl like me." But by ignoring this aspect of herself, and refusing to address it head-on, Natalie is succumbing to the same fatphobia that shapes her world, whether she identifies it as being a problem or not.

Before her life becomes a rom-com, Natalie feels invisible at work and in the world. Some of this is certainly her fault, but fatphobia is also at play. Fatphobia chips away at the humanity of fat people from different angles. It means that Natalie gets used to being dehumanized; she doesn't expect others to have empathy for her when she's physically hurt, because they don't value her body. And it's no coincidence that Natalie's fantasy world includes a magically bigger apartment with unlimited clothing options, because discrimination against fat people isn't just a matter aesthetics and preferences—it affects everything from our ability to dress ourselves to our ability to make and save money, since there's a price to pay for being fat, even if it's just having to pay more to travel. Just as much as gender and race intersect with fat bodies, so, too, do economics and class.

I knew I could count on a plus-sized white comedian to take down a genre of films that prioritized thin women. But I ventured to see if Wilson could go further than that, and challenge what it means to be white and well-off and fat in the process; it isn't just about taking down rom-coms but about doing so in a way that isn't just a mouthpiece for white feminist values. But, in the end, that isn't what happened. Isn't It Romantic is fine, but it needed to do more than target an audience of girls who are 10 to 30 pounds overweight and still too jolted by the word "fat" to ever apply it to themselves, so they go for acceptable alternatives, like curvy, plus-sized—or thicc, if they're hip. But I'm not afraid to say I'm fat, I'm just disappointed I will be waiting even longer to see a realistic reflection of that experience onscreen.

Isn't It Romantic is in theaters now.