Wear Me

How the White T-Shirt Became a Fashion Classic

A floor-spanning exhibition at New York City's MoMA seeks to define what makes a piece of fashion classic, from the little black dress to the white T-shirt and sky-high Louboutins.

In 1944, New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) hired Viennese architect Bernard Rudofsky to assemble its first fashion exhibition, entitled “Are Clothes Modern?”

The obvious answer—a resounding “No”—was spelled out in the titles of sectioned installations: Excess and Superfluity, The Desire to Conform, The Abuse of Materials, and The Revival of the Rational, to name a few.

Rudofsky argued that modern-day dress was physically constraining, uneconomical, poorly made, and stuck in pre-WWII traditions. The politically charged exhibition attempted to show how women’s and men’s clothes were often uncomfortable, ugly, and occasionally distorted the human figure.

On October 1, MoMA will unveil its second-ever fashion exhibition, one that fittingly revisits some of the themes in Rudofsky’s show. “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” examines the last 100 years of dress through 111 items of clothing and accessories that have had a huge impact on the world.

These 111 “typologies” are lenses through which we consider the cultural, economic, political, and environmental impact of fashion as a form of design.

111 items may not seem like a lot of stuff, but the exhibition is both exhaustive and exhausting. It fills the entire sixth floor of the museum, which is rather large, but the objects and garments on display seem crammed into the space.

Curator Paola Antonelli set out to show “indispensable items,” many of which are presented in different incarnations like “stereotype,” “archetype,” and “prototype,” which illustrate their significance in the last 100 years. As such, there are around 350 total objects in the exhibition.

Yet each piece is displayed like a work of art, so that the quotidian t-shirt, turtleneck, safety pins, hijabs and headphones are treated with the same respect as the more glamorous items, like the Birkin bag, Chanel No. 5 perfume, an Yves Saint Laurent “Le Smoking” suit, and Louboutin heels.

A white T-shirt, you quickly realize, is never just a white T-shirt. (If this still seems a puzzle, go home afterwards and rewatch Meryl Streep lecture Anne Hathaway about the color blue in The Devil Wears Prada.)

Accompanying texts explain the items’ history while also exploring their cultural, political, economic, and environmental impact.

Yves Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking suit, for instance, was considered radical when it came out in the 1960s--a garment that freed women from skirts and dresses and allowed them to try on the traditionally masculine power suit. Today, however, it’s not radical enough; as Hari Nef, the transgender model and writer, argued at a MoMA salon in May about the exhibition, Le Smoking reinforces gender binaries.

“The discourse around this image is that a woman gains this power, this dominance, this sexiness from donning a man’s suit,” Nef said. “If she’s sourcing that from a signifier of stereotypical masculinity, then how sustainable is that as a power source?”

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The exhibition confronts issues like cultural appropriation, social status, class, body standards, emancipation, rebellion, and modesty through its items. Each one is iconic in different ways, and each piece’s cultural impact is contextualized within its history.

The items are loosely grouped into sections that flow into one another, which is one of the exhibition’s drawbacks. Without clear demarcations, this visitor was easily overwhelmed and overstimulated to dizzying effect, much like after shopping for several hours in Target.

If you hang in there, though, you begin to understand that displaying Spanx and white t-shirts not far from more haute objects makes you think about fashion in a different way than you would think about it in more traditional fashion exhibitions, like the annual exhibitions in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute.

White T-shirt.

Image courtesy Shutterstock/SFIO CRACHO

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In a middle gallery devoted to dichotomies like modesty and rebellion, a red Champion hooded sweatshirt hangs on a wall like a Renaissance masterpiece.

The modern hoodie was born in the 1930s when Champion created them to keep athletes warm. It was a staple in college students’ wardrobes in the 1950s, and then was adopted by the hip-hop and skater communities, both of which pulled them up over their heads as a kind of protective armor.

Other politically charged items include berets worn by Black Panthers, a burkini, and a red football jersey with the name “Kaepernick” written on the back.

Though the Colin Kaepernick jersey was acquired by MoMA more than a year ago, it is one of the more topical pieces in the exhibit as many American athletes, following Kaepernick’s lead, are now kneeling during the national anthem to protest President Trump.

Many of the “prototypes” on view were commissioned specifically for the exhibition, inspired by advancements in technology or political issues like climate change. These pieces bring the viewer from the past and present into the future. A version of the classic Breton shirt, for example, by British designer Unmade is presented alongside a touchscreen, allowing visitors to tweak the stripes of the original as Unmade did.

In a talk earlier this week, Antonelli said the red Champion hoodie was a key piece in the exhibition because it can be perceived as either threatening or as a way of diminishing oneself while concealing your face from the world.

The hoodie is representative of how “these absolutely functional garments [throughout the show], because of history, become invested with so much power...And we want people to come into the exhibition recognizing that anything that they wear at any time can be a symbol, and a symbol that is world-changing.”

Items: Is Fashion Modern?” is at New York's MoMA, 11 West 53rd Street, through January 28, 2018.