Is Fashion Modern?


   Is fashion modern? The time-old debate has been revisited by the Museum of Modern Art with its new exhibit titled under the same question. Items: Is Fashion Modern is an offshoot of the 1944 MoMA exhibit, Are Clothes Modern, which attempted to answer the very same question. 73 years later, the new exhibit focuses on a hundred and twelve items that the institution believed “have had a strong impact on the world in the 20th and 21st centuries—and continue to hold currency today.” (“Items: Is Fashion Modern?,” 2017) The museum curator, Paola Antonelli, described many of the items as “stereotypes”. The descriptions and categorization of these items brings to notice the Western gaze on the rest of the world. Western civilization has often taken a dominant position in setting standards and norms. Is fashion only modern under the Western eye? Many of the items in the exhibit considered revolutionary or modern in the context of the Western world were often very traditional in another culture. Many like to view the turning point of Western fashion with the Rei Kawakubo’s and Yohji Yamamoto’s 1981 debut in Paris. The designers’ Paris debut featured impeccable tailoring, unfinished hemlines, darkness, and new silhouettes; it left the European audience in shock. These new characteristics in clothes were never seen before on the runways. It was unimaginable, it was everything Western fashion was not until that point. However, modern in the eyes of the West for defying all of their norms, Kawakubo and Yamamoto garments carry heavily traditional Japanese cultural traits on their sleeves. Fashion in the West is only seen as modern against what contrasts on its back-drop. The concept of modernity across different geography is best explained by Kishore Mahbubani: “The Western interpretation of Modernity is associated with far out thing like Andy Warhol, but modernity in Asia is associated purely with the achieving the basic material necessities of life….It’s things like flush toilets, clean water, electricity, a roof over your head, all these things the West takes for granted, Asians haven’t had for a long time.” (“Kishore Mahbubani: How do you define modernity?,” 2012) This nuance more importantly illustrates the clear differences in values in the West and the East that extends into aspects of daily life.

    Fashion in the Western hemisphere historically has centered around designers and their fashion houses. Charles Frederick Worth, who was the first designer to have his label sewn, would lay the foundation for the fashion industry and its social ties. The industry in the early 19th century had connections to the Parisian royal family. Fashion was reserved for the rich, focusing on the couture, which was often very ornate and extravagant. Aligned with the times, fashion was identified with restrictive gowns, silhouettes, and styles that promoted the Western idealized proportion of the women’s body. However as the period progressed, some designers began to experiment with new silhouettes, aligned with the new expression of women’s freedom in society.

     In 1981, Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto’s first joint Paris collections would startle the fashion world. They completely disregarded the “accepted Western practices based on sexual difference, sexual commodification, and sexual exploitation” (English, 2011, 69). There were many characteristics of the collection that stood against the conventional characteristics of a typical Paris show. The garments were dark with impeccable tailoring, but unfinished with raw hems. The silhouettes were new, with the shape of the body often hidden or warped. In contrast, the Western brands of the period featured bold colors, sharp silhouettes, and often excessiveness. Even beyond the clothes, the beauty standards of the West were questioned. The models had makeup less faces, unkempt hair, and flat shoes. Critics were confused, with some describing the collection as, “post-nuclear glamour” or “ Hiroshima Chic”. However, Kawakubo and Yamamoto did not come to Paris with the intentions to revolutionize fashion. Rei is quoted, “I only came to Paris with the intention of showing what I thought was strong and beautiful. It just so happened that my notion was different from everybody else's.” (“The Misfit,” 2005) It just happened that the characteristics of Eastern culture contrasts so strongly against the West, that it was seen as them disrupting the scene. The characteristics of the Eastern culture were the norms for these designers. The harsh difference of cultural traits ingrained in these garments allowed for the West to view them as modern because of their far-outness from the Western definition of normal.

    The same cultural traits deemed as modern in the West stem from traditional Japanese values and customs. In Japanese culture, the same sensibilities applied to the arts are applied to everyday life. During tea ceremonies, old, irregular, and worn drinking vessels are used. The Japanese saw these characteristics as reflection of individuality and the humanistic spirit. The Japanese view is in complete contrast with the West’s, which often looks down upon the characteristics of age and irregularity. The disconnect in the reaction to the characteristics of age and use explains some of the reactions to the debut collections. Critics quickly labeled and pushed the collections under the umbrella of the “aesthetic of poverty”. In the West, newness is valued over all. Wealth and status is shown by being able to have the newest things and to constantly afford to replace, reflecting the capitalist nature of our society. These elements of the Japanese values are translated to the garments with ragged edges, tears, knots, uneven hemline, and silhouettes. It was unthinkable to place garments with these characteristic up on display, especially in Paris, where the fashion industry has historically been a symbol of exuberance and wealth.

    Fashion has been the symbol of the upper class and excess in the past, often embodying the beauty standards of the periods. Dresses were made with corsets or padding to reshape the female body to rigid standards. The Japanese designers of the period broke away from the conventional models of glamour. They viewed and understood the concept of beauty completely different from the West. Issey Miyake, another brilliant Japanese designer, revealed his Beautiful Ladies Collection in 1995. The collection used six models between sixty two and ninety two, substituting the youthful models for much more mature ones. Age is valued by Miyake, set against the backdrop of the industry and the West, whom are notorious for their obsession with youthfulness. Rei Kawakubo works often questioned the traditional proportions of the body. One of her most monumental collections The Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body of 1997 created new silhouettes for the human body never seen before. The collection featured dresses with lumps and bumps made of paddings, aesthetically referencing the image of tumors on the body. The body was accentuated with bumps on unusual parts of the body like the stomach, back, and waist. This new silhouette of a women challenged the pre made silhouette set by Western society, which normally centered around small waists and the accentuation of more traditional parts like the bottom or chest. Why is one considered beautiful, while the other is considered “strange” and “disgusting”? Rei told Vogue, “It’s our job to question convention, if we don’t take risks, then who will?” (“Renegades and Radical Bodies in 3 New York Exhibitions,” 2017) The social and intellectual environment Rei Kawakubo grew up in, as a daughter of a professor and a student at Keio University during the 60’s, must have had Kawakubo aware of the intellectual debates relating to women’s status and positioning within Japanese society. Although in interviews, Kawakubo has been quoted in the past, “ I am not a Feminist.” (“Rei Kawakubo: ‘I Am Not a Feminist’,” 2009) The term feminism has a Western connotation, despite the ideals being universal. Feminist is a term many fashion critics and journalists have frequently attached to Rei’s work, despite her rejection of that identification. Rei’s garments were modern in spirit, designed for the new women that did not come to please, but to assert her personality. Although she does not identify with the term feminist, Rei embodied a new generation of women with independent and strong personalities, those that disregard past patriarchal notions. She holds a rebellious spirit that can not be left unacknowledged; “When I was young, it was unusual for a female university graduate to do the same job as a man. And of course women didn’t earn the same. I rebelled against that … I never lose my ability to rebel, I get angry and that anger becomes my energy...”. (English, 2011, p.69) Even when the West does try to compliment Rei, it is on their terms and labels. Why are the groundbreaking ideals of Rei’s clothings automatically labeled under a Western ideology? The ideas of women equality and strength are universal. It can come from an Eastern standpoint, independent from the West. Once again, the prevalence of the Western gaze is visible.

    Yohji Yamamoto had his own unique relationship with designing for a new women. He was raised by a widowed dress maker, who worked tirelessly to support him. When Yamamoto attended Bunka to study fashion, he was greatly outnumbered by young women. He explains, ‘I don’t know any woman who doesn’t work. Between my mother and Bunka, this completely formulated my outlook on women.” (English, 2011, p.70) He saw making clothes as honest work, as a job that supported his mother and him. Making clothes for Yamamoto was not glamorous, but it was a skill that was necessary for the survival of his family. Yamamoto resented many of his mother’s dress clients, categorizing many as wealthy status driven women. This formative understanding of the status of women in society, will dictate Yamamoto’s direction in fashion. He describes his purpose in fashion: “I may be making fashion in the sense of craftsmanship, but I hate the world of fashion. Fashion is more about helping women to suffer less, to attain more freedom and independence.” (English, 2011, p.70) With this understanding of the working women, Yamamoto stood out greatly from the haute couture designers that dominated Paris at the time. The haute couture designers of the time did not care to make garments to embody the working women, but worked to cater to customers like Yamamoto’s mother’s dress clients. These Western designers lived in a disillusioned bubble of fantasy and wealth. The contrast in values and purpose, translated to the stark contrast in aesthetics on the runway. Up until then, the fashion industry did not design for the working women in mind. The industry mainly catered to the wealthy elitist women. With the emerging prominence of the independent empowered working women, Yamamoto pushed boundaries to what fashion could be. Along the way of attempting to destroy the classicism of the old industry, Yamamoto reshaped the participants of fashion.

    The values of the East with the emphasis on the working women and maturity explain the shift of creative importance placed on prêt-à-porter (ready to wear) and not haute couture. There is a sense of humbleness embodied in these garments. The characteristics of deconstruction on the garments were not meant to elicit “a deeper sociological message about poverty or oppression” (English, 2011, p.130), that many Western fashion journalists were quick to conclude in reviews. This once again shows the fundamental difference in cultural traits of the civilizations.  For these designers, the traits of deconstruction and signs of wear on garments were just used to communicate their artistic ideas and convey a new visual language. Although there is influence by the ideas of poverty and oppression touched upon, those influences were not translated in such literal interpretations. The characteristics of age and deconstruction are not necessarily associated with just poverty and oppression, but part of the everyday life and culture of the East. The West’s unfamiliarity with this way of thinking reflects in their categorization of the new aesthetic with poverty.

     What was truly modern about these Japanese designer’s works was the more honest and rooted reflection of the world presented on the garments. Fashion up until then was for the rich and the famous. Collections in the West did not touch subject matters that were deemed to be frank or dark. Topics like poverty, gender norms, and social structures were questioned and used to shape the Japanese garments. The introduction of these designers would change the fashion industry forever. The environment of the 90’s, was prime for the prominence of the new aesthetic. The new aesthetic “was attuned with the political and cultural upheaval of the era from techno to grunge, to Chernobyl to the economic crisis.” (“Anti Fashion”, 2012) Clothes were shifting from something worn to wow others to something worn to feel good. The new wave of designers that include Helmut Lang, Alexander Mcqueen, Raf Simons, Jil Sanders, Rick Owens, and Martin Margiela, would emerge and take over the 90’s. These designers would all credit Rei and Yohji for paving the path.

     The West and the East have developed in vastly different fashions. Historical and cultural events of each hemisphere resulted in divergent values and traditions, which in turn lead to contrasting views on culture and its resulting cultural products. However, the West has always had the greater power to judge and label, despite its clear misunderstanding of foreign cultural context at times. The misunderstanding of these foreign nuances results in a skewed understanding of foreign products. Fashion from the East has historically been viewed as new and groundbreaking, but not without negative first reactions. The innate negative first reaction from the Western fashion press on Yamamoto’s and Rei’s debuts illustrates inherent unfamiliarity with these concepts. Despite concepts being historically ingrained, the West’s unfamiliarity has the power to label it as new. The West is often the decider in what is modern and what isn't. However, it is important to take in consideration the dynamic of both hemispheres before taking the West’s labels as definite truths. The MoMA display of culturally traditional garments like item #080 the sari or item #097 the tabi boot as modern becomes questionable upon closer examination in a different context. Items: Is Fashion Modern answers the question strictly under the Western eye, ignoring the cultural context of other countries. As the question is revisited in the West, it draws on larger cultural questions and a zoom out of the Western lens for a more complete and objective answer.

Works Cited

English, Bonnie. Japanese Fashion Designers: The Work and Influence of Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo. Berg Publishers, 2011.

“Items: Is Fashion Modern? | MoMA.” The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA,

“Kishore Mahbubani: How Do You Define Modernity?” Kishore Mahbubani: How Do You Define Modernity?, Big Think, 23 Apr. 2012,

Kourlas, Gia. “Renegades and Radical Bodies in 3 New York Exhibitions.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 4 Aug. 2017,

Nicklaus, Olivier, director. Antifashion. ARTE FRANCE/LALALA PRODUCTIONS , 2012.

Odell, Amy. “Rei Kawakubo: 'I Am Not a Feminist'.” The Cut, NEW YORK MEDIA LLC, 9 June 2009,

Thurman, Judith. “The Unsettling Vision of Rei Kawakubo.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 10 July 2017,

Walker, Harriet. Less Is More: Minimalism in Fashion. Merrell, 2011.







Kimberly ZhongComment