One of the lesser burdens of being an art historian is that, periodically, one has to go to New York. I will never tire of turning into the fifth floor galleries at the Museum of Modern Art to see, directly in front of me, Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and then, turning right, through the doorway into the next room, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. And I don’t know how many times, first in SoHo, then in Chelsea, and increasingly today in the Bowery, I’ve walked into a gallery to discover work that has simply taken my breath away.
Such surprises rarely happen in the big museums. The shows are too well-publicized, the artists well-known, their work familiar, and whatever (sometimes very great) pleasure one might take in seeing a retrospective of Robert Rauschenberg, for instance, there are few epiphanies to be had.
So imagine my surprise when, at the end of October, we walked into the Museum of Modern Art to see a show called Items: Is Fashion Modern? occupying the entire sixth floor of the museum. Not since 1944 has the museum dedicated an exhibition to fashion, and the show is a revelation.
The opening salvo was a stunning display of “little black dresses,” beginning with the first, Coco Chanel’s 1926 black crepe de chine sheath which Vogue magazine called “The Chanel ‘Ford.’” Henry Ford’s black Model T was only available in black from 1915 to 1925, and the comparison of Chanel’s dress to the Model T was Vogue’s way of asserting the Chanel’s “modernity.” While that original “little black dress” has inspired countless others over the years, it has always remained the same: decidedly modern.
But it is not the Chanels, Diors and Armanis of the world who are the focus of Items. Rather, it’s things, the things in the back of your closet, that matter: loafers, handbags, suits, underwear, hoodies, daskikis, chinos, bikinis, kilts, leotards, headwraps, fanny packs, stilettos, speedos, silk scarves, bandannas and turtlenecks, to name a few of the show’s 111 different categories of dress by means of which we have come to define ourselves as modern.
The show ends with a pair of Levi 501s and a Hanes white T-shirt. We are told that in 2016 an estimated 1.2 billion pairs of jeans were sold worldwide, underscoring their status as the new global “uniform,” but their modernity is closely aligned with modernity’s greatest problems. After oil, the fashion industry is the second most polluting industry worldwide, and each pair of jeans will emit, in its life cycle, 73 pounds of carbon, to say nothing of the fact that the dying and finishing dyes used to make them are among the world’s worst pollutants. And the if white T-shirt has emerged, in the words of the catalog, “across cultures, classes, styles and identities as a classic, unisex garment,” its ubiquity has made it the focal point of worldwide discussions addressing fair labor practices and the environmental toll of processing cotton into garments. But it is most of all a plain white space that invites us each to stencil our lives and feelings upon it—where we’ve been, whose music we listen to, what we think of our modern world. The white T has become, perhaps, the world’s largest blank canvas, which is not an idea I would have ever considered before I saw it, as if for the first time, in Items.
Henry Sayre is the author of ten books, including the best-selling art appreciation text, A World of Art, now in its eighth edition. He retired from Oregon State University in 2015, after teaching art history in both Corvallis and Bend for 35 years.