In his 1836 novel Sartor Resorts, Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle observed that clothes are always, despite their seeming banality, ‘unspeakably meaningful’. As self-adornment, the clothes we wear mark currents in personal and collective identification, patterns of movement and migration and socio-political affiliation; as commodities, they speak of shifting systems of labour, production and global distribution. Fashion responds much faster than art to the cultural zeitgeist of its time. ‘Fashion speaks capitalism,’ as writer Elizabeth Wilson once put it; but as a child of capitalism, fashion – in all its economic, social, and aesthetic complexity – rarely receives critical curatorial attention. Most fashion exhibitions seem to resort either to a high-modernist approach of portraying the designer as a great auteur on par with their art-historical contemporaries, or the materialist doctrine of traditional costume history. However, two current exhibitions in New York – ‘The Overworked Body: An Anthology of 2000s Dress’ at Mathew Gallery and MINI/Goethe Institut Curatorial Residences Ludlow 38, and ‘Items: Is Fashion Modern?’ at the Museum of Modern Art – make bold attempts to decode fashion from two opposing curatorial perspectives, by tackling the very premise of fashion’s postmodernity, and with it, many of its existential dilemmas: the relationship between form and function, automation and craftsmanship, and the status of aesthetic authorship in the age of global mass production.
Both exhibitions, curated by Matthew Linde and Paola Antonelli respectively, cite a methodological predecessor: for Antonelli, the infamous 1945 MoMA exhibition ‘Are Clothes Modern?’ curated by Czech-American architect Bernard Rudofsky, effectively the only fashion exhibition to appear in the museum for 70 years; and for Linde, the 1971 Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition ‘Fashion: An Anthology’, curated by London aesthete Cecil Beaton. Both exhibitions have been commemorated in academia for their irreverent approaches to the field of fashion curation: Rudofsky questioned fashion’s modernity by approaching 1940s dress with a bird’s eye perspective, confronting visitors with the non-functional absurdity of how humans alter their bodies with and through objects of clothing, while Beaton presented a deeply idiosyncratic collection, constructing a history around his favourite designers that excluded those he felt undeserving.
Installed across two sites in the Lower East Side – Mathew Gallery and Ludlow38 – ‘The Overworked Body’ examines the still-to-be-defined era of 2000s dress in a Beaton-esque fashion. From the crass neon sloganism of early Henry Holland and the abstract radicalism of the second-wave Belgian avant-gardist A.F. Vandevoorst, to the peculiar functionalism of North-European designers like Ann-Sofie Back, and the party-driven ebullience of downtown New York collective AsFour, Linde paints an image of a booming industry in constant pursuits of newness. These examples prove that the 2000s was an era of experimental garment design: the alien and carnivalesque forms of Hideki Seo’s mody-morphing ensembles in blue and red primaries from 2002 echo the irreverent work of his then-tutor Walter van Beirendonck, whose politically tone-deaf ‘menswear burqa’ from the same year gender-swaps Muslim garb in a cacophony of red, blue and earth-toned knitwear. Linde cites 11 September, 2001 as a critical juncture in New York City’s fashion scene, changing not only the market but the general état d'esprit of the American fashion capital. (The World Trade Center was struck on the fourth day of New York Fashion Week, also the planned date of Narcisco Rodriguez’s SS’02 show; his densely encrusted black cocktail dress is also on display here.)
The 2000s saw the industry at the cusp of a digital revolution, one that would irrevocably change the fashion world forever: platforms like Style.com (now Vogue Runway) gave anyone with a computer access to international fashion, collapsing divisions between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ and launching high fashion’s as the mass-cultural phenomenon it is today. However, if digitization ‘democratized’ fashion, it also diffused it, as it came face to face with the illusory power of the mass-market. Martin Margiela was the first in a string of radical European designers selling their namesake brands to corporate conglomerates (the launch of the brand’s couture line after Martin’s departure is marked at Mathew Gallery by an uncanny vest stitched from up-cycled ski gloves), all while the 2000s saw the rise of high street giants like Zara that spearheaded a type of retail practice where the sartorial vanguard – be it haute couture or street culture – was copied at such a pace that any small- to mid-scale design studio would struggle to keep up. ‘Trickle-down’ and ‘bubble-up’ economics are some of the most clichéd tropes in fashion theory, and Linde contests these reductive logics in his historical presentation. The inclusion of items from collections produced by high fashion designers in collaboration with retail brands, such as Alexander McQueen and Proenza Schouler for Target, speaks to an important market shift, in which profit is generated by brand cross-pollination rather than imitation or wholesale theft. In these cases, authorship is continually caught between the market and the myth, the marginal and the mainstream – in the process shaking up all previously established hierarchies of ‘good design’.
If Linde provides a precise take on the past decade of high fashion, during which authorship became an increasingly complicated question, MoMA’s large-scale survey serves as a helpful historical backdrop. Its presentation of 111 archetypes of modern dress – from the suit to the Speedo to the Burkini – attempts to break down the complicated and often irrational histories of the ‘Items’ of clothing we wear everyday. Through juxtaposed objects and accompanying short video essays, bold comparisons abound: the ubiquitous fanny-pack appears in its various historical renditions, from the Native American buffalo pouch made of animal hide and MTV-era nylon merchandise, to Vivienne Westwood’s bum bag designed for her 1996 Louis Vuitton capsule collection. Margiela’s famous tabita boot, which he re-invented again and again in his time, derived its odd toe-cleft from the footwear of Japanese construction-workers, also on display. The salwar kameez, a casual cotton blend two-piece popular in South Asia, is cheekily flanked by the more traditional sari as well as Diane Von Furstenberg’s leopard wrap dress from 1974.
Can we, and should we, judge these histories of inspiration and appropriation? ‘Items’ makes no ethical judgments, but portrays instead the many paradoxes of authorship in contemporary fashion, pointing to the way in which the origins of a design are increasingly obscured by its global circulation and corporate ownership. In this age, authorship becomes a question of copyright and trademark, epitomized by the designer’s monogram, which functions both as a legal marker and a brand signifier. In 1984, Miuccia Prada added the family brand’s triangular metal label to a chubby nylon backpack, inspiring millions of counterfeits, some of which appear in the show alongside their original model. Around the corner, the work of Dapper Dan encapsulates the inverse of this brand exchange: in the late 1990s, the self-taught New York designer sold custom clothing for African American celebrities from his Harlem storefront that freely appropriated and re-sampled monogram patterns from European fashion houses like Fendi, Gucci and Louis Vuitton. The fact that Gucci recently re-appropriated Dapper Dan’s iconic designs (and, after being criticized on social media for failing to give due credit, announced their intention to collaborate with the designer to re-open his famous Harlem store) only speaks to the ways in which ‘authenticity’ and its discontents are continuously in flux.
If fashion can be defined as the practice of dressing in rapidly and continually changing styles, its modes of authorship must be structured by the ever-changing rhythms of the marketplace. It becomes the duty of the fashion curator, then, to break free from the auteur-model and embrace these modes in all their complexity.
Main image: ‘The Overworked Body: An Anthology of 2000s Dress’ (detail), 2017, installation view, Ludlow 38, New York. Courtesy: MINI/Goethe-Institut Curatorial Residencies Ludlow 38; photograph: Yair Oelbaum