Photograph by Pablo Cuadra for Getty Images.

The Reason Fashion Museums Avoid Controversy

As a new fashion exhibition exploring Catholicism opens at the Met, we look at how museums often favor the uplifting messages clothing carry at the expense of their troubling associations.

by Haley Mlotek
May 14 2018, 4:02pm

Photograph by Pablo Cuadra for Getty Images.

We expect our clothes to do too much. Much like a painting is more than the colors on a canvas and a book is more than words on a page, fashion is expected to be both the sum of artistry and artistic intentions. But it is the most ordinary element of fashion that concerns us: it is more visual than verbal, more about what is seen than what is said. Style is where what usually goes unspoken has the chance to be read.

“Items: Is Fashion Modern?”, which ran from October 1, 2017 to January 28, 2018, was the Museum of Modern Art’s first fashion exhibition in seventy years. It had a straightforward mission: curator Paola Antonelli and her team asked only, did this garment change the world? Rather than curate an exhaustive list of every clothing item that could reasonably be considered significant to contemporary culture and design, Antonelli and curatorial assistant Michelle Miller Fisher—as well as an advisory council that included Kim Hastreiter from PAPER, Imran Amed from Business of Fashion, Penny Martin from The Gentlewoman, designers such as Shayne Oliver, brands such as Helmut Lang and Everlane, and Valerie Steele from The Museum at FIT—selected 111 items they believed exhibited the richest political, economic, and social aspects of clothing. It had the brilliant effect of showing overlapping histories: instead of a straight timeline, each artifact was presented as having a timeline onto itself, showing how you can find entire histories in just one item. Turtlenecks, jumpsuits, saris, capri pants, little black dresses, kippahs, and graphic t-shirts were all given the gravity we expect of anything brought under a museum spotlight.

In the press preview, Antonelli said that growing up in Italy, she was taught that everything is political, except family. The current state of the fashion industry— with so few conglomerates owning so many houses, and with the frequent shuffle of designers and creative directors between brands and labels—is made up of so many insular overlaps that it is less a family tree than it is a family shrub. Politics, in this climate, is perhaps the last luxury not afforded to anyone in fashion who wants to keep their job. I called Antonelli to ask how this influenced her curation process; she agreed that “like most disciplines that are a good pleasure, fashion is not made to criticize politics,” but that because it is “so important to our daily lives—combined with personality and practicality at every moment that it is worn—it must be considered politically.” It was gratifying to see garments given their full political context, so that the exhibition was not simply another fashion spectacle but a fair survey of the ways clothing affects and represents our daily lives in both ordinary and extraordinary ways.

The hoodie, represented by a single red Champion brand prototype, invented to keep athletes warm in the 1930s, adopted by skateboarders in the 1970s, worn by the Wu-Tang Clan in the 1990s, and now favored by the tech CEOs of our current age. It was the uniform of the Million Hoodie March, named in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin, and in recent years, designers such as Vetements, Givenchy, and Balenciaga have made the hoodie their own in the way that high fashion does—the catwalk looking to the sidewalk. This is the item in a state of “co-existence,” Antonelli explained, rather than an evolution. “It is a garment that is part of our life, and for that reason, it gives birth to many different variations and sometimes exaggeration.”

Yet in the exhibition itself, that kind of varied context was only given to items of clothing that can now reasonably be considered items of protest against oppression and injustice, while the types of clothing that represent the necessity of those protests were not given their complete due. This was most obvious with two items: Dr. Martens shoes, and polo shirts, which are both explicitly linked to the neo-Nazi and white supremacy movements gaining increased attention in our present political moment.

Doc Martens and polo shirts have long been considered common symbols to look for if trying to identify a racist skinhead, as detailed on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Racist Skinhead Glossary. In “Items,” Doc Martens were described as being championed first by blue-collar workers for their sturdy affordability, and then adopted by skinheads: “[n]amed for their extremely short haircuts and based in grim regions of postwar Britain, they expressed pride in their working-class roots by wearing everyday work clothes,” the exhibition notes read. This is an overly simplistic description of skinheads, which have many different factions—some committed to anti-racist beliefs, and others committed to hateful bigotry. The pair used in the show were on loan from the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and Antonelli says they were previously owned by a self-identified skinhead, saying that MoMA “wanted to show how an item as benign and universal as Doc Marten’s can be co-opted.” According to the Glossary, the laces on Dr. Martens are often used to signify what kind of skinhead the wearer would like to be read as—white for white pride, red for neo-Nazism, and yellow for anti-racist—but such distinctions show how integral these shoes are to displaying an affiliation with a hate group. These accessories, and the context they provide, were not included in the show.

Meanwhile, the polo shirt was described as a “streetwear staple” in the press release, and the garments on view were focused on its aspirational status symbolism: René Lacoste; British tennis star Fred Perry; and Ralph Lauren’s polo, described as “an aspirational symbol of an American leisure lifestyle,” which “secured an originally unintended audience,” among the Lo-Life Crew of Brooklyn in the late 80s. The exhibition notes stated that “the shirt was adopted by mods and skinheads, two subcultures grappling with working-class stagnation,” but there is no mention of the way the so-called alt-right has deliberately adopted the Fred Perry polo and other similar styles as their uniform, in recent years most notably at the instruction of Gavin McInnes, the founder of the alt-right men’s group called Proud Boys or its roots in British white nationalist parties dating back to the 1960s. The August photos from Charlottesville were the most recent instance of white polo shirts being explicitly linked to hate groups, and Antonelli explained that they had already finished the exhibition labels with no time for additional edits. Still, the classist elements of the polo shirt, in her reading, are “symbolic of certain tribes in certain moments in history.”

This is the second time in recent memory a fashion exhibition presented by a major museum has excluded context for items with evil connotations: in the summer of 2013, The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute showed “Punk: Chaos to Couture,” and did not include any swastikas despite the well-documented evidence of punk musicians and fashion designers adopting them, either as an attempt to subvert their meaning or to signify an allegiance with neo-Nazi principles. In doing so, the Costume Institute missed the opportunity to discuss how these symbols appear and reappear for different purposes; more than that, in making them invisible, it only heightens their power. These subtle outfits are chosen with the explicit intention to disarm; polo shirts paired with khakis, to someone who isn’t a Nazi, look so much like traditional business casual outfits.

These curatorial decisions—to give a political dimension to clothing items worn in protest, but not acknowledge that standing close by are the clothing items worn with the intention of signifying the same oppression and evil being fought—imply that one kind of clothing has to carry the weight of the world on its shoulders, while the uniforms of intimidation, fear, and hate are not asked to carry that same burden of context. To host clothing deliberately adopted by hate groups—in large part because of their innocuous appearance—without referencing these associations only strengthens their message. We cannot look at a wall of buttoned-up polos and not think of those photos that came from Charlottesville just months ago, of neo-Nazis carrying tiki torches. We can only look at them knowing that they have been deliberately adopted by people signaling hate and harm, and that they have been, at different points of history when worn by different people, also the chosen uniform of tennis players and country clubbers.

These curatorial decisions imply that one kind of clothing has to carry the weight of the world on its shoulders, while the uniforms of intimidation, fear, and hate are not asked to carry that same burden of context.

Antonelli reminds me that different museums have different priorities: a fashion exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art will be very different from the Met or the Smithsonian, meaning that aesthetic decisions, and all the context they provide, will be held to different standards than moral ones. My concern is with our reading of the shared now, the time when the question of what fashion is—an art, a business, a politic—deliberately evades the question of what fashion does. As a cultural institution of such magnitude, their choices carried a sense of certainty; their interpretation has the power to become an official statement of fact, and the record of history. We do not need the answer handed to us with a conclusive judgment—that is, fashion is good, and only good, because all instances that suggest otherwise have been deliberately erased.

Currently, the Costume Institute is showing “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” possibly their most ambitious (their most ecclesial?) concept ever, featuring clothing and other holy artifacts that have never travelled outside the Vatican. The narrative of the tragedies that the religion associated with that clothing has wrought—and even directly inflicted on some of the designers who were inspired by it, and are featured in the show—isn't a part of the exhibition, and it was only alluded to on the red carpet of the show's celebrated gala.To see both this exhibition and MoMA’s in a single year is to see the way fashion can be both sacrosanct and common, both heavenly and corporeal, depending on who is thinking about it, and how those thoughts are given shape. Clothing, the “Items” exhibition reminds us, does not matter because it is special; it matters because of how common it becomes in the service of our lives, objects that can carry and communicate meaning on behalf of the wearer, who makes those articles of fashion speak. The question to ask when we read our clothing is: what is fashion good for?