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We Are What We Wear: Exhibition Examines Clothing That Changed The World

Curator Paola Antonelli says the white T-shirt is both timeless and universal.
Curator Paola Antonelli says the white T-shirt is both timeless and universal.

From baseball caps to saris to the little black dress, there's a social history woven into the clothing we wear. A new exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) explores that history. "Items: Is Fashion Modern?" looks at some of the garments that changed the world — but the show less about fashion, and more about design, history and why things last.Consider, for example, flip-flops, aka thongs. "The thong is very important," says MoMA Curator Paola Antonelli. "It's a humble masterpiece. That's why it exists in all cultures."A red hoodie, made by Champion in the 1980s, is also on display. At first, Antonelli says, the hoodie was functional: After training, a sweaty athlete might put one on to stay warm. But in recent years, it's become political."When Trayvon Martin was wearing it in Florida a few years ago — he was walking at night and buying candy — George Zimmerman thought that he was suspicious because he was wearing the hoodie," she says. "So this disconnect and this misinterpretation transformed the hoodie into a tragic symbol, and also a political symbol."A religious symbol is embodied at MoMA in the hijab — the head and neck covering some Muslim women wear to preserve their modesty. It's been controversial as well as coveted. A few years ago, a Muslim designer in Australia attached a head cover to leggings and a long-sleeved top. The result was a burkini, a swimsuit for observant Muslim women. Mecca Laalaa Hadid helped raise the suit's profile."She was an observant Muslim young girl [who] wanted to be a lifeguard," Antonelli explains. "And so there are these beautiful pictures of this woman beaming with the burkini of the same color as the other lifeguards' [bathing suits]."She could stay modest and do her surfside surveillance at the same time.The museum puts the burkini next to a bikini — that little, two-piece nothing that originated in France. It first appeared in 1946, to the delight of some beachgoers; others were scandalized, and some knew they could never try it."The bikini was so skimpy as to be unwearable by a proper woman," Antonelli says. In fact, it was so skimpy that at first the designer couldn't get professional models to display it. So he hired a striptease dancer from the Casino de Paris. Whether a culture favors covering or uncovering, Antonelli says there's one universal: "The female body is always a battleground."Work clothes haven't sparked a lot of controversy, but they have also changed with the times. A well-worn pair of 501 jeans tells a story that began in 1853, when Levi Strauss & Co. started making blue jeans. MoMA fashion historian Stephanie Kramer says denim fabric had been around for years, but during the gold rush, Levi Strauss stitched it into a workman's necessity. "They were the ones that put the rivets at the different stress points of the jeans," she says, "including pockets, crotch, areas like that."Those rivets made the pants more durable. They lasted longer, and became a classic. Today, that onetime utilitarian item has turned into a fashion statement. Designer-made, ripped jeans sell for a fortune, as do acid-washed and stone-washed jeans. "I think it tells you that jeans are the ultimate modern garment," Kramer says. "They're both timeless and temporal."For the show's grand finale, the museum has chosen maybe the most common piece of clothing there is; something you'd find in most people's bureau drawer, man or woman. "It makes a lot of sense to end with a white T-shirt," Antonelli says.First of all, it's a power piece. "Power is still represented, in some people's imagination, by the male three-piece suit or two-piece suit — it's still very masculine," Antonelli explains. "But in truth, today, the guy wearing the three-piece suit is probably the bodyguard; the guy with the real power is wearing a T-shirt."The white T-shirt also brings together various points the show is trying to make: "The idea of timelessness, the idea of universality, the idea of good design — old school good design, form follows function — and ecology, fast fashion, how we dispose of objects," Antonelli says. "So everything is crystallized by the white T-shirt."On a video monitor installed near these iconic threads, a young woman walks toward us in a white T-shirt. She begins to take it off, and underneath there's another white T-shirt; and under that another and another and another. The message is clear: This T-shirt goes on and on. It will never end. It's eternal. Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.