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Faux-Pas at MOMA

The many blind spots of the “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” exhibit

I may not know much about art—at least as art is assiduously curated and theorized for the aficionado-and-cognoscenti set—but I do know my way around the pits of fashion. When it comes to clothing and the canons of clothing design, I appreciate traditional Sabyasachi Mukherjee saris just as much as I savor Christian Dior creations. As someone with access to both jeans and saris throughout my life, but sundered from the surplus capital that enables the thoughtless purchase of haute couture for perhaps the next ten lifetimes, I have always found clothing to be fascinating—particularly as a marker of social station. Every outfit identifies and fulfills class assumptions. When I was still a child, my mother often insisted my two sisters and I accompany her to local textile markets, where we learned to pick out cloth, and go through mounds of patterns and brochures while being measured by tailors, who we then relayed our designs to. For jeans and T-shirts, we could be found haggling with local vendors who sold the surplus from garments factory orders to locals, often settling for a thousandth of the price tag that these same Levi’s jeans were sold for on the world market.

I lined up at MOMA for a close-up view of how the brutal business of global garment-making was to be cleaned up for aesthetic presentation.

It was only when I moved to India for high school in 2002 that I realized I grew up participating in the second most prolific garment-producing country in the world after China. Bangladesh had 4,482 active garments factories in 2017. For the fiscal year 2016, Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association reports that garment manufacturing represents 28.1 billion dollars of exports—as well as being an industry that routinely consigns its workers to acute deprivation and safety hazards, such as the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza, which took the lives of over 1100 laborers in the deadliest disaster in the garment trade.

Five years after the Rana Plaza catastrophe, New York’s Museum of Modern Art has mounted its first fashion exhibit in seventy-three years, called “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” When Rana Plaza imploded on April 24, 2013, I was working in Dhaka. As global newspapers rushed in to cover the catastrophe, their reports neglected to note that the political situation was so terrible that day that there was a countrywide curfew. These curfews meant that larger garments factories remained officially closed in compliance with the government order—while continuing to illegally outsource production orders to third-party factories like those in Rana Plaza. The only people on the streets were those forced by economic circumstances to risk enduring cocktail bombs to go to work, so they could meet deadlines for multinational companies such as Gap and UK-based Primark. In the aftermath of the tragedy, the Bangladeshi government rushed to improve safety standards, with labor and human rights advocates calling for greater transparency and accountability. In 2016, thirty-eight people were charged with murder for the building collapse.

So as I lined up at MOMA for a close-up view of how the brutal business of global garment-making was to be cleaned up for aesthetic presentation, I was especially curious to learn how my own fraught connection to fashion might be reflected in the exhibit. Simply by virtue of living in Bangladesh, one is made privy to the supply-chain networks that feed into the mass production of ready-made garments. One Japanese company produces half the world’s zippers; most buttons in a Mexican-produced shirt are probably sourced from China. When my mother and I adjourned to MOMA this October, during the opening week of the exhibit, we harbored some hope that our own experiences at the source of the global fashion supply chain might be reflected back to us. Indeed, with the notion that we might gain the imprimatur of the Manhattan art world, we walked straight past the signage for the show. These signs explain that there are 111 items being catalogued as moments of exemplary design impact in the last century—none of whose placards, it turns out, elaborate on the enormous Asian labor regime that delivers couture and accessories to the admiring, free-spending West.

The exhibit’s Italian-born curator Paola Antonelli, from the Department of Architecture and Design, says that since joining MOMA in 1994, she has faced a good deal of institutional resistance to the idea of taking fashion seriously as a mode of artisitic expression. The consensus then was that fashion is merely ephemeral or (at best) seasonal, and hence art’s stepchild. Still, Antonelli was drawn to MOMA’s Bauhaus vision, which is hospitable to the idea of fashion as a legitimate art form. Taking New York as what she calls the exhibit’s curatorial “center of gravity and observatory,” she came to recognize that her own approach was parochial in contrast to the rapidly globalizing fashion trade. Seeking to broaden the mission behind the exhibit, she visited Korea, Japan, India, and Bangladesh, while her colleagues went to Nigeria and South Africa. Because it was a MOMA exhibit, it had to be object driven, she argues—while also displaying a measure of geographic ambition. “We tried to be comprehensive without trying to be universal,” Antonelli explains.

Culled from museums, private collections, and backs of closets, the Items exhibit attempts to understand prototypes, stereotypes, and archetypes of objects and accessories. In some situations, one example—such as a perfume bottle or a single fitbit—is enough to showcase a trend. In others, such as the treatment of shift dresses, we are shown seven examples. The viewers also encounter a glib discussion of how modesty and headscarves are endemic to non-western cultures, in a gesture that would make conservative French politicians cringe. Safari clothes were placed next to mannequins flanking African batik prints, work uniforms, hats, and diamond rings, and even three and a half moon boots inspired by Neil Armstrong’s moon landing. As Antonelli laid out the exhibit’s larger design in an interview with the auction house Sotheby’s, she noted that her team began by including the white T-shirt as the initial entry and the last, a sunscreen. In other words, the exhibit is bookended by objects that serve as totems of white and western privilege.

I am increasingly sensitive to how my region of the world is always represented as simplistic, timeless, and ageless.

When the show addresses religious and politicized items, the approach is likewise noncommittal-to-anodyne. MOMA’s mission here, it seems, is to showcase a vision of modernity in fashion that’s incorrigibly multi-faceted and open to interpretation and innovation—while sidestepping more substantive and material modes of modern experience.

Take, for example, the clipped, cursory treatment of Islamic attire. Hijabs and a nod to the keffiyeh worn all over the Arab world are separated by a passageway displaying swimwear including the burkini, a recent fusion of the traditional Muslim burqa and the bikini. This was the first time that I—a non-practicing secular Muslim—had encountered this novelty. And in the broader context of Eastern and Asian culture, this approach was more blinkered still: markedly absent were the sarong, the kimono, and even popular Indian accessories like the bindi, which has been adopted by several Hollywood stars such as Madonna over the years, amid controversy about cultural appropriation.

It soon became apparent to both my mother and I that the items that matter in Antonelli’s vision are of Western provenance, and reinforce a Western view of how the fashion world works. In this myopic scheme of things, western fashion houses are clothing empires that control the ebbs and flows of exchanges of what constitutes as revolutionary and disruptive moments in the fashion world. A more nuanced representation of the curre of influence and global networks of supply and demand that actually shape the fashion scene is ruled out, pretty much by definition. The marginal character of non-western design was inscribed by a striking, and otherwise inexplicable, omission in the exhibit: no South Asian item of clothing was identified as the work of an individual designer, very much in contrast to the European and American articles elevated uncritically into the mainstream of fashion. The Western and Western-influenced designers who were named included Chanel and YSL—together with Aheda Zanetti, the founder of the controversial burkini. I cringed at the burkini, wondering how it has become associated with my religion, though in Zanetti’s own words, the awkward hybrid garment was supposed to be a symbol of “leisure and happiness and fun and fitness and health.”

The little black dresses in the second room ended with a funeral shroud placed next to two saris, which were in turn separated by a display box with four shoes by Martin Margiela with bifurcating bovine toes. These shoes, the viewer learns, were inspired by “tabi”—a Japanese split-toe sock tradition from the fifteenth century. I was unsure whether the curators meant me to be inspired by the Croc-like design of the shoes. I was, however, quite flabbergasted by the drab nature of the saris. One of the sari mannequins looks at the audience, while the other’s back is turned, and wedged in front of them is a video on how to drape the sari. The one facing the audience is wearing a white khadi sari lent by Rta Chishti, sari scholar and one of the founders of India’s popular sari store Border&Fall, while the other one is a nameless purple Varanasi silk. The khadi referenced India’s reclaiming anti-colonial roots in the 1930s inspired by Gandhi, and the second a nod to India’s most popular form of silk saris.

Stereotypes of Indian clothing are always distressing in Western settings; here, the symbol of the sari also encapsulates the high-nationalist phase of modern Indian history, which saw the widespread adoption of the khadi as the national outfit. For very conservative Indians, wearing a white khadi ensemble in an everyday setting would be inconceivable, since white is a color of widowhood and aging. Younger generations may savor the color white, but often as a deliberate act of rebellion. I’ve seen distant relatives cringe when I’ve shown up for formal occasions in a white sari.

My emotional reaction to the saris was one of disdain. It’s not that I want the signature nationalist outfit of India to be treated with any chauvinistic reverence. At the same time, though, I am increasingly sensitive to how my region of the world is always represented as simplistic, timeless, and ageless.

I wondered if the curators believed that Japanese innovation is complemented by symbols of death with the white khadi sari and the funerary black dress ensemble next to it. The most extraordinary outfit in the show was an endless Issey Miyake red dress, with a plaque suggesting that Japanese designers such as Miyake and Comme des Garçons’ Rei Kawakubo are exceptional in creating garments that subvert the human form by rethinking clothing’s relationship to basic anatomical shape. Perhaps because they’ve earned, in the curators’ eyes, the mantle of stylistic innovation, Miyake and Kawakubo are among the only non-Western designers hailed as breakthrough figures.

The khadi certainly signifies a disruptive moment in Indian history, part of Gandhi’s effort to revive domestic manufactures in the face of colonial exploitation. The unstitched Indian cloth of the khadi was thus elevated as a key native product, and therefore to be favored over traditionally western outfits. Yet the saris we saw were in their most colonial and reactionary forms, reinforcing the idea that India is, like other Orientalist constructs, obdurately resistant to innovation.

I shared the photographs I took of the saris with several South Asian friends, and none appreciated the exhibit’s caricatured treatment of Indian fashion. The choice of the khadi as a representative garment makes a certain kind of political sense, if not of an encouraging sort, suggesting that the sari cannot be innovated.

Perhaps because they’ve earned, in the curators’ eyes, the mantle of stylistic innovation, Miyake and Kawakubo are among the only non-Western designers hailed as breakthrough figures.

By contrast, the salwar kameez—the most ubiquitous of South Asian clothes and hanging diagonally across from the sari—is credited in the exhibit to Pakistan. It was a blue tunic and white polyester pair of pants with a scarf, in the style of a school uniform. This outfit, worn by nearly a billion people across the globe as well as South Asia, is hardly Pakistani, though it originated in the Punjab region, which was split between India and Pakistan during Independence from the British in 1947. Once more, my heritage was reduced to the stuff of stereotype and crude oversimplification—mere totems of religious observance, with salwar kameezes as Muslim outfits and saris as Hindu.

“Unbelievable,” my mother said, as she looked at the salwar kameez. The outfit even had the hooks through which you slip the scarf through, something absolutely unheard of beyond the confines of middle and high school. The curators simply seized upon the school uniform as means of reducing already marginalized wardrobes into dreary irrelevance. When I later picked up the exhibit catalog, I found out that the nod toward the school uniform was intentional: the curators were reaching for a standardized symbol of the salwar kameez. For some obfuscated reason, just like the khadi was chosen to represent the disruption of empire, so was the polyester school uniform chosen as a banal symbol of everyday life. I scanned the space for similar synecdoches of multicultural drabness. But there was absolutely no other outfit than the salwar kameez that exemplified a garden-variety schoolgirl’s wardrobe.

The salwar kameez stands out in especially striking contrast to the fine embroidery and beadwork on the embellishments of some of the little black dresses on display nearby. Such flourishes are didactically denied to the salwar kameez or the sari, which had originally delivered much of this embroidery and beadwork to the world at large.

Why is it that the craft from South Asia is used to showcase the glamor of the west, but when showcasing my own heritage, we are reduced to polyester outfits and antiquated khadi saris? And even when we’re permitted a glimpse of non-workaday Indian fashion, we see a sari rendered in such a hideously garish purple Varanasi fabric that the sight of it prompted bile to rise up my throat. It was my first time finding out that the salwar kameez was also known as a men’s outfit; I had only seen the tunic and trousers called kurta punjabis, but never a kameez. In fact, the only attractive pieces of Indian clothing were three lovely cashmere shawls in another corner, clearly perceived as western enough in consumption practices that we were allowed richly woven versions of cashmere.

“Can western curators get over their colonial hangover of focusing on classifying ethnic traditions as timeless, rudimentary, and plain?” I wondered aloud to my mother. She replied, curtly: “In our dreams.”