what's Worn: Museum survey

barbara stratyner


Fashion has its own chronology. Made famous even to the uninitiated by the documentary about Vogue, the September issue of women's magazines is dedicated to fashion. Available in early August, they are frequently the largest of each magazine year – packed with advertisements featuring fall looks, the new items made available in stores by July. During Fashion Week, which New York hosts for ten days in the middle of September, designers show styles for next spring. And this fall’s fashions? They were shown last spring.

During fashion season, you can always rely on finding exhibitions on clothing and costumes at New York museums in the Fall. This year, you can look forward to four major, very different approaches to fashion as art, artifact and an integral part of our lives. Each is accompanied by public programs and online content. You may have missed Fashion Week, but nothing beats seeing garments close up in a New York museum.


Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme

September 15, 2017 – January 6, 2018

The Museum at FIT

The earliest exhibition to open, The Museum at FIT brings us clothing created for four extreme environments that have inspired fashion and streetwear. The exhibition’s outer gallery begins the trip with safari clothes, adapted from street fashion for traveling the 19th and 20th centuries.  Safari clothes are never completely out of fashion’s sphere since the jackets, trousers and skirts offer an excuse for lightweight fabrics and neutral colors like ecru. Each features the best-known aspect of safari clothes: multiple cargo pockets. The garments, designed for temperate climates and warmer seasons, are an excellent example of adaptation – good for striding and shooting, but also for the summer streets.  

The exhibition moves on to introduce us to how garments and fabrics are adapted for the Arctic, Deep Sea and Space. In the Arctic, parkas and down-filled jackets demonstrate how garments are produced and adapted for use in extreme environments. The exhibit makes it easy draw the line to our Lands End down coats from their origins in pieces like Norma Kamali’s sleeping bag jacket, all orange fabric and zippers, or Charles James’ white satin evening jacket, which in its usual home at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum is shown for its reference to Renaissance doublets.  

In the Deep Sea, we consider bioluminescence on fish and on garments. Neoprine, which was invented for wet suits, has been used to protect divers, to conserve heat in bruised muscles and joints, and as a fashion fabric by the likes of Karl Lagerfeld.  The final frontier for fashion exploration is, of course, Space.  For life in rockets and space ships, garments have to be both functional and protective. Fabrics and materials invented for space, from helmets to boots, have inspired designers and been adapted for contemporary use since the 1960s.

The all-day Symposium: Fashion Science Exploration will be held on October 10, 2017 at the Museum at FIT. If you want to investigate even older design solutions for expeditions, head to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for Portable Storage: Tribal Weaving from the Collection of William and Inger Ginsburg (on exhibit until May 7th, 2018) for an exhibition focused on woven bags for nomadic cultures in what are now Iran, Turkey and the Caucasus.


Items: Is Fashion Modern?

October 1, 2017 - January 28, 2018

Museum of Modern Art

Beginning on October 1, you can study design at a rare clothing exhibition at MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design. Following up its 1944 exhibition, Are Clothes Modern, this year’s Items: Is Fashion Modern? explores the present, past—and sometimes the future—of 111 items of clothing and accessories that have had a strong impact on the world in the 20th and 21st centuries—and continue to hold currency today.  Among the “well-known and transformative” featured pieces are the sari, Levi’s 501s , the Breton shirt (the French mariner’s long-sleeve shirt), the pearl necklace, the keffiyeh, the kippah, and the Little Black Dress.

These items from the present, plus the plain white T-shirt that is the exhibition logo, are shown as at the center of their life spans. The curator believes that they have had long histories and will continue to exist and influence. For some visitors, they are symbols of personal status or of adoption of cultural norms. For others, they are worn to disguise or to adapt to someone else’s lifestyle.  

Visitors may debate the selection of feature artifacts – they are definitely well-known, but are they transformative? It is difficult to think of any artifact more First World than a Little Black Dress.  Some may question selection of jeans and striped top, which are work clothes adapted for civilian life and people who don’t work with cattle or fish.


Mod New York: Fashion Takes a Trip  

Nov. 22, 2017 through March 31, 2018.

Museum of the City of New York

In its exhibition Mod New York: Fashion Takes a Trip,  the Museum of the City of New York brings us the full arc of clothing, accessories and illustrations from 1960 to 1973. These years saw cultural trends swing back and forth across the Atlantic to New York, with fashion taking a trip on popular music, paintings, identity politics, and space ships. “Many of the garments,” Curator Phyllis Magidson told me, “have been featured in other exhibitions, but not in context. The exhibition reveals the trajectory that evidences the fact that fashion and socio-political movements are intermeshed during this period.”

New York’s contribution to fashion is revealed in over than 70 garments with accompanying accessories, photographs, and illustrations, which show the dramatic transformation of clothing between 1960 and 1973.  Fashion magazines, women’s magazines and department stores – all heavily New York-based industries at the time – promoted these transformations widely, making fashion trends national. The Jackie Kennedy look brought the skill and clarity of American designers to the fore, developing garments that were groomedtidy but facilitated movement. Even the bridge and retail collections promoted by fashion magazines of the day experimented in terms of length – from mini, above the knees, through midi, mid-calf, to maxi – and silhouettes, ranging from simple shells and princess lines and skirts with visible waists at the waistline to shifts and A-line dresses with no waistline at all.  

The clothing on display illuminates the cultural trends of those 13 years. Beatlemania impacted New York’s experience of popular music and teenage audiences, but it also served to promote the import of London style, the Carnaby Street look of Mary Quant and Biba. Painters’ experiments with Pop and Op Art were easily adapted to the shifts and A-lines. The exhibit’s display of illustrations by Anna Marie Magana, illustrator for the department store Henri Bendel, reinforces the focus on shapes and length. Her advertisements showed miniskirts on a long-legged “14-headed woman,” whose legs and torso equaled 14 times the length of her head. Women’s liberation did not detach women from designing, making or purchasing fashion, but it did force fashion to recognize that the market would always demand comfortable fit and movement.

Magidson is especially excited to include examples of Afrocentrism created by Harlem-based designer and dressmaker, Ruby Bailey. Her innovation in African fabrics, with styles based on African garments, can be seen in both garments and in the cotton sculpture fashion figures whose faces, poses and hair styles were based on contemporary performers.  

The curator notes that “the changing shapes of clothing and accessories were realized with daring uses of materials, and method of textile manufacture.” The exhibition features two cases of jewelry, devised with Judith Price, of the National Jewelry Institute. The world-famous fine jewelry lines were injected with humor and relevance to complement fashion trends.  The “New Bohemia” counterculture selection includes Tiffany’s designs referencing hippie beads, while “New Nonchalance” shows Cartier’s fine jewelry based on hardware, including the nail bangle, and the love bracelet, held together with screw heads, for which the purchaser was provided with a matching screwdriver).  

The exhibition development was informed by an IMLS- funded project of creating photographic documentation for all of the garments from the 1960s and 1970s. The mounting, documenting,  photographing, and de-installation of the garments was done in an empty gallery (now part of New York at its Core) in view of the curious public.


The Body: Fashion & Physique

December 5, 2017 – May 5, 2018.

The Museum at FIT

Later this year, The Museum at FIT will present The Body: Fashion and Physique: a more theoretical subject than the other exhibitions, but a frequent concern for the Museum and graduate program at FIT. It is also a subject with which we all live. The garment reveals the shape of the body, while the body adapts to the shape of the garment. To confound us further, the fashion world – haute and retail alike – has a history and habit of changing the expected shape of the body. This body politics has always been an active battlefield – caught between fashion and anatomy, bodies are challenged and some have been marginalized. Fifty artifacts from FIT’s exceptional collection will demonstrate how society’s requirements and adaptations cause or assuage this difficult relationship.  

When I was teaching fashion history or walking a group through a fashion exhibition, I found it difficult to explain deliberately restrictive clothing to people who never wear uncomfortable garments.  When visiting The Body, you may join me in thanking Bonnie Cashin and her colleagues from Mod for the unrestrictive clothing they championed.

Michael Kors is tie-dying, Anna Sui has brought back crocheting and lace, Prabal Gurung is combining maxi coats with miniskirts. Denim is everywhere – from classic shapes like MoMA’s Levis to designers who drape it as if it was silk. Keep an eye out. Who knows what will show up on the streets this fall?