Shaping Fashion at MoMA

Michelle Millar Fisher, GC CUNY, at MoMAThe Museum of Modern Art is diving back into fashion with its exhibition, Items: Is Fashion Modern? The museum’s first fashion show in more than 70 years, it has drawn glowing press and big crowds, much to the joy of Graduate Center Ph.D. candidate Michelle Millar Fisher (Art History), who co-curated it.

On view are 111 wearable items — from a 1920s little black dress by Chanel to a 1950s jacket to a Fitbit — that in the minds of Fisher and her co-curators changed the world.

For those longing to see haute couture, the show might be a disappointment, but Fisher is unfazed. She and Paola Antonelli, senior curator of MoMA’s architecture and design department, intended to spark new ways of looking at the things we wear or have worn.

Many of the pieces are so common as to be considered mundane — flip-flops, the trench coat, the white T-shirt, the turtleneck. But in each case the curators show the often long-forgotten history of the item or the provocative statement that can be made, either consciously or unconsciously, by wearing it.

Who thinks of the “trench” in trench coat as stemming from the battlefields of World War I? Today’s tech and hedge fund executives are more likely to convey power with a white T-shirt than a suit.

Other items have become shorthand for troubling events and difficult conversations. The hoodie, first designed for athletes, has morphed into a symbol of racial discord and violence. Colin Kaepernick’s jersey, a top-seller, is imbued with the message of his protest.


1950s Schott biker jacket at MoMA show, curated by GC CUNY student
A Schott biker jacket on view at MoMA

At midday on a Thursday in November, when Fisher led a tour of the show, the spacious rooms were bustling with visitors of all ages and in all styles of dress. Two meticulously clad women chatted about the neckline of a Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress. A young man in a red and black plaid shirt asked his friend to snap a photo of him next to a display of a nearly identical 1980s plaid flannel shirt by Woolrich — a look that has moved from leisure and work wear into high-end fashion.

Fisher conveyed a quiet confidence and youthful energy as she walked through and described her exhibit. Words like “fashion lexicon” and “typology” flowed out in warm tones. Since moving to the United States from Glasgow 13 years ago, she has maintained a soft but distinct Scottish accent.

Among Fisher’s favorite items are ones that imply, either subtly or blatantly, a blend of rebellion and solidarity. They include a 1968 dashiki introduced by the New York-based design company New Breed Ltd. as a symbol of the black power movement and pan-Africanism. “It seemed to be a really amazing moment of fashion really being part of the conversation,” Fisher said.

Ballet flats, particularly a pair from the 1940s, are another favorite. American designer Claire McCardell conceived them as a sporty alternative for busy, modern women — a postwar alternative to restrictive, Paris-based fashion.

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Fisher is an architectural historian by training. Before coming to MoMA four years ago, she had never worked with fashion. For her and her fellow curators, though, the show was an opportunity to demonstrate that fashion is part of design. “Design is what you use on a daily basis,” she said.

It’s no wonder that they chose items that are familiar. “I can’t imagine doing an exhibition that didn’t in some way connect to our everyday lives,” Fisher said.

The curators initially drew up a list of more than 500 items, which they whittled down to 111. Some of Fisher’s favorites didn’t make the cull. “The sock is one item that didn’t make it that I loved,” she said, pointing out its “good history of hygiene” and the “idea of knitting on the home front during the war.”

For Fisher, working in MoMA’s design department is a dream realized. She first applied for her current role in 2008, but was told by the curator who interviewed her — a longtime mentor — that she needed further graduate education.

That was the impetus for Fisher to get a Ph.D. She looked only in New York and applied only to the Graduate Center. “I feel very strongly about state education,” she said. “I come from Scotland where higher education is free.” Had it not been, Fisher, whose mother didn’t graduate from high school, wouldn’t have had a shot at college or graduate school.

At the Graduate Center, she has found a cadre of students and faculty who share her interest in architecture and design. And, after applying for her position unsuccessfully two more times, she finally landed it. “It was really being able to do my graduate work at the GC and taking very specific classes in our program” that made the difference, she said.

photos by Rachel Ramirez

Submitted on: NOV 10, 2017

Category: Art History | General GC News | Student News