Ready to Wear
December 7, 2016 through April 29, 2017
Yeshiva University Museum
edited by Esther Juhasz
5 Continents Editions, 368 pp., $75
Bernard Rudofsky was hard to please. A champion curmudgeon, the Moravia-born, Vienna-trained architect “disapprove[d] of many more things than the average person,” observed one of his long-time friends. Urban sidewalks were too hard on the feet, modern architecture was too hard on the eyes, and the way most people dressed, especially in America, was downright “stupid”—so stupid, in fact, that Rudofsky made a career out of highlighting its limitations.
In 1944, New York’s Museum of Modern Art hired him to organize an exhibition titled Are Clothes Modern? The answer, of course, was a big, loud “no!” Several intriguingly named installations on the first floor of 11 West 53rd Street—Excess and Superfluity, Abuse of Materials, and Revival of the Rational—explained why. Burdened with unnecessary ornamentation, contemporary mass-produced clothing was poorly made, physically constraining, and aesthetically unappealing, claimed the architect-turned-critic. Or, as Rudofsky himself would have it, modern-day dress was “useless, impractical, irrational, harmful and unbeautiful.” Take that, Seventh Avenue!
With its fierce and uncompromising sensibility, Are Clothes Modern? created quite a stir, prompting The New Yorker to stir things up even further by characterizing the exhibition as the “psychoanalysis of clothing.” But it was more than just a media sensation. A rallying cry, a call for “intelligent change,” Are Clothes Modern? encouraged Americans to “take the blinders of tradition off modern eyes” when they got dressed in the morning.