OpEd: MOMA’s “Is Fashion Modern?” Exhibit Answers Its Own Question

Installation view of Items: Is Fashion Modern? The Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 1, 2017-January 28, 2018. © 2017 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Martin Seck

Installation view of Items: Is Fashion Modern? The Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 1, 2017-January 28, 2018. © 2017 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Martin Seck

“Today, like yesterday, ‘modern’ in architecture and design indicates a constructive attitude based on the unity of arts, working together on society’s needs, aspirations, and priorities.”

That is one of the sentences in the opening narrative at the Museum of Modern Art’s “Is Fashion Modern?” exhibition, the first fashion exhibit to be housed at the New York institution since 1944. The collection includes 111 garments and accessories that had a strong influence in the past century. 

By the above definition, fashion is modern in the simplest of interpretations; It is designed to reflect our society’s needs (to have the basic necessity of clothing as it evolves), aspirations (to be represented as we wish when we wish) and priorities (to project the best, most current representation of ourselves). But I must argue, that what we have deemed as our societal needs, aspirations or priorities in fashion is far too flippant to what the reality is: we have a large, modern, environmental and human rights problem at the tip of modern fashion’s tongue. And we must speak it.

Our modern fashion needs, aspirations, and priorities have spun-off into a powerful cyclone of demand and consumption that does not compare to any society the world has ever seen. 

  • Over the last 15 years, clothing consumption globally has nearly doubled.

  • 95% of clothing is recyclable, yet 85% winds up in landfills today.

  • Fashion has become one the most polluting industries in the world (and growing).

  • Humanity is currently consuming resources at 1.6 times the planet’s capacity, and by 2030 we will need two planets worth of resources to keep up with growing consumption.

These facts are not including the systematic peril of those who work in unofficial, and sometimes official, supply chains and factory settings, that are not being paid a living wage or working in safe conditions in order to meet the demand of global consumers.

So if we ask ourselves, “is fashion modern?” I would say: not enough. The exhibit highlighted many prototypes of fashion using innovative fabrics and methods that impressed the packed crowd of onlookers. Innovations that highlight waste and environmental concerns, innovations that lit up and sparkled with new beauty. Stella McCartney’s man-made silk dress in partnership with biotechnology company Bolt Threads was suspended high on the wall, a rarity to be marveled, but definitely not touched.

The problem it seems is that fashion is modern, but we are not. If we were more aware of fashion’s issues and evolved enough to rectify them, modern fashion would be making these prototypes functional fashion for us all, removing them from prototype territory altogether, and fostering them to be worn on both catwalks and sidewalks.

We need these innovations now to make fashion as modern as it must be. Most of the fashion industry leaders making the big decisions (and counting the sales revenue) are not there yet - and I fear they are already behind.

As a society, fashion is modern as it reflects our needs, aspirations, and priorities; let us make those lead with sustainable models, circular economies, remedies for waste and innovations that will really move us forward. “Fashion should be escapism,” Jeremy Scott recently expressed on BOF; without self-reflection and modernization, it is could end up modern society’s largest, and most beautifully woven trap.

The Museum of Modern Art "Is Fashion Modern?" exhibit runs now through January 28, 2018, full audio of the exhibition with images is available narrated by curator Paola Antonelli.

Read more about the exhibit here with a fantastic behind-the-scenes publication from MOMA hosted on Medium.