An Analysis of ‘Is Fashion Modern’ at the MoMA

An Analysis of Is Fashion Modern

An analysis of Is Fashion Modern?

I was lucky enough to be in New York City on the day the Is Fashion Modern exhibit opened. MoMA states that the exhibit “explores the present, past—and sometimes the future—of 111 items of clothing and accessories that have had a strong impact on the world in the 20th and 21st centuries—and continue to hold currency today.” An analysis of Is Fashion Modern encourages us to ask is fashion sustainable.

On Display

This collection displayed significant and iconic clothing and accessories including:

  • Le Smoking the black tuxedo inspired suit for women by Yves Saint Laurent,
  • a black evening dress by Chanel,
  • an iconic wrap dress by Diane von Furstenberg,
  • Capri pants,
  • and a myriad of shift dresses.

The exhibit also included significant and iconic clothing beyond American or western cultures (I for one would love to see saris more widely available in the US especially hotter climates) as well as menswear including the Trench Coat.

Is Fashion Sustainable?

After leaving the exhibit space you come to an open area with two enormous wall murals. The upper mural is a symbolic representation of the 111 items in the exhibit arranged by when they emerged over time and other symbols to indicate their significance. The other set of murals presents the sustainable impacts of eight specific, iconic pieces (jeans, fleece, white t-shirt, Dr. Martens, etc.). There was an analysis done by the New York College Fair Fashion Center that evaluated the item’s progress against the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals as well as what impact areas would be affected by a “Quantum Redesign” of the item.

For example, for a t-shirt, 2,700 liters of water are used in the production of one t-shirt. A Quantum Redesign would affect SDGs of Responsible Consumption and Production, Clean Water and Sanitation, Sustainable Cities and Communities, industry Innovation and Infrastructure, Climate Action, Life on Land, and Life below Water.

The murals also shared the impacts of these iconic pieces under the pillars of sustainability – people planet and profit. Some of the interesting facts to note:

  • White T-shirt- only 1.8% of the cost of the shirt is represented by workers’ earnings
  • 501s – Nearly 3,800 liters of water are used to make a pair of 501s. Fiber production uses the most water followed by consumer care. Manufacturing one pair emits 73.6 lbs of CO2
  • Fleece – the microfibers from fleece make up 85% of human debris on shorelines across the planet.

I personally would have liked this explored in more detail in the exhibit. Also, the scale of the murals (I can’t share photos due to MoMA’s photo policy) was enormous and hard to read and interpret. There was a lot of information crammed into the various graphics, and I am glad I took photos to review. I would have also liked to have seen the sources for the sustainability data. However, I was thrilled to see the sustainable impacts of our clothing brought forth in a museum exhibit to bring awareness of the impacts of our clothes to those who visited.

So is Fashion Modern?

By using the 111 pieces that are considered “modern” the exhibit answered the question – sort of. The pieces exhibited are modern because they have stood the test of time regardless of whether they are considered a current trend. It also invites us to discuss and consider the difference between modern or iconic vs. trends. We can take this to our closets as well and ask the question of the items we have – Are they modern? Will they stand the test of time?

However, when you get to the end of the exhibit to the wall murals presenting the sustainability metrics- you realize fashion is woefully behind and outdated and not in a cool vintage way. Fashion still uses fur. It exploits workers from the people who pick the cotton to the women sewing in dark, unsafe factories. It is a highly resource intensive industry using pesticides, toxic chemicals and lots of water. The dyeing, manufacturing and transportation methods are polluting and highly energy intensive. The supply chain is as clear as mud. And the industry is thriving on Fast Fashion – selling cheap clothing to unwitting consumers who think it will build a wardrobe. It’s not sustainable in the truest sense of the word – meaning at the current way of “doing business” fashion as an industry won’t survive this century.

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