The exhibition “Mod NY: Fashion Takes a Trip” at the Museum of the City of New York, highlights a selection of visually groundbreaking and historically significant garments from the 1960s when American fashion underwent radical aesthetic transformations. As clothing also assumed communicative powers—reflecting the emergence of a counterculture, the women’s liberation movement, and the rise of African-American consciousness, designers responded with artistic and avant-garde designs, giving clothing a voice and point of view.
The installation boldly presents a decade of changing fashion immersed in a vibrant array of color, dynamic geometrical forms and graphic patterning. Color is the leitmotif. Color is the bound between all elements. The gallery is organized into five distinct but overlapping sections - “First Lady of Fashion”, “Youthquake”, “Bohemia”, “The New Nonchalance” and “Black and White Ball”. In each section, mannequins are carefully arranged, highlighting relationships in color and pattern, conversations between like-minded designers.
The color palette mirrors the artistic, graphic and material inventiveness of the Mod period yes is not derivative. Triangular platforms with 3 tiers increase the available perimeter for display and set a dynamic dialogue between the garments and the gallery space. Screens are integral to the color compositions, simultaneously defining one zone while also allowing visual transparency for comparison between different themes. Viewed from the entry, the colored side of each screen pairs with wall graphics in a bold display. From the rear of the gallery, the color is much more focused, and the black side of the slats filters the color images of the garments.
The screens are a bespoke design that captivates the spirit of the gallery. As the budget was quite modest, we had to find a way to use digital pattern without great cost. The inventions was to create a vertical “blind” in Sintra that is held in tension on a 45-degree angle. The 1/8” thick black material is digitally printed in continuous color on 4-foot by 8-foot sheets. Then each sheet is cult into 3-inch slats, numbers and then hung inside the tubular steel frames using simple hooks and tied in tension with Zip ties at the bottom.
A soundtrack of hits from the era gives the experience a dynamic, upbeat excitement from the moment you enter. Ultimately, it is the use of color that becomes the overriding parameter for the design, inspiring the material selection and simple detailing that make it all work together as one very Mod experience.
Mod New York: Fashion Takes a Trip
Curatorial imperative: The story of 1960s American fashion is the story of changing culture. It is a decade that began with political complacency and ended in social and political upheaval. And while fashion has been a mirror to social and economic values, it was not a reflection of our a more diverse cultural arena and forging strong ties to the art world.
The first design gesture was to make a plan that is simple in disposition responding to the symmetrical exit and entry to the gallery. This gives visitors a clear view of the space as a whole so that the decade can be understood both as a whole and as a sequence of discovery. The complexity of the visual vocabulary needs to be anchored to spatial clarity. For this, we developed a singular bold gesture of geometry. With vertical lines, triangular forms appear out of optical effects - the patterning engulfing the visitor and the displays into one Mod world of color. The entire wall surface is uniquely drawn with no repeat pattern, so there is a flow that carried forward in color and shape.
Design and art
In a small gallery (2800sf), the greatest visual impact is achieved via a single bold gesture that is direct and spatially coherent. What is Mod? Mod is a fluid term as is the design and art and music culture that it defines but more specifically, Mod is inextricably linked to pattern and color.
The design notes that color comes alive in color. A neutral background will not give us the vibrant intensity that we are able to get with additional pattern and color tones. This use of color with the costume drives home the message for the visitor. The success of this strategy came out of the study in order to see how the palette would react in different parts of the room. We shifted hue from greener to bluer to cooler colors as one walks from section to section so there is a vibrancy to overall look without repeat patterns that would create an unwanted rhythm that might work against the niche layout of themes.
Before we began designing, we spend time with the curator in the "vault" looking carefully at each and every one the costumes and the accessories. But what gives this show its contextual magic is the use of period drawings and photography. Here we were able to take advantage of the Museum's collections and artist's archives. In particular, Kwame Brathwaite, an American documentary photographer known for documenting life and culture in Harlem sets the tone with his "Black Is Beautiful". Our work with the curator resulted in unforeseen refinements in the checklist, the interweaving of the curatorial narrative with politics and the addition of a musical soundtrack from the period.
The screens between niches integrate with the wallpaper design. Our desire to have blended color on every slat required full-scale color printing. Each screen is unique in design and color palette, dovetailing with the continuous wallpaper graphic. The symmetry of the design is a sophisticated visual play that gives relief to the patterning and makes a stronger accent out of the use of black at the background color. Black is used for trim on the platforms, the accessory cases, and graphics. It makes the lighter colors feel almost illuminated.
To make the screens, 4-foot by 8-foot sheets of 1/8-inch Sintra (a stable plastic) were digitally printed on one side, then the sheet was cut in 3-inch by 8-foot slats. Each slat is numbered (as part of the digital file, pierced with holes top and bottom and then aggregated in order into bundles. On-site, the black, tubular steel armature was fitted with hooks and each slat hung in place. Using zip ties, the slats are placed in tension at a 45-degree angle so they don't bend or move. Given a tight "load in" schedule, the entire assembly was only two days by a 2-person team. This very economical solution coupled with the simplicity of the platform tiers and casework kept the show to a very tight budget for fabrication of $60,000.
Audience - It's not about memory as much as discovery as this show helps different generations understand the expression of who we are in terms of how we present ourselves. Fashion on in the 60s was a political act as much as any other and from that time forward, it has stayed such. With its soundtrack and timeline linking the years to other historic events, visitors understand fashion as part of the full panorama of American culture.
Educational intention - Cultural and social value
Steven Burrows was the first black designer to win a Cody, the international fashion award changing forever the culture of fashion, opening the door to not only the great variety of aesthetics but making the fashion take notice of counterculture and free expression.
Today it seems natural that the way we dress reflects who we are, our heritage, our customs and our role in society. But this show clearly describes the changing values of dress during a politically and socially charged period so as to dramatically shift the way we have looked at fashion since then. The educational objective also includes pattern study for clothing assembly, the relationship of clothing to other fashions such as hair and makeup and the technology of working in plastics, paper, and other manmade materials.
The museum is harnessing the diversity of aesthetic and designers in their educational programs for student and docent touring.