Adaptive Technology and Design in Recent Exhibitions

New York City’s museums frequently integrate fashion into their exhibition schedules.  Clothing, textiles, jewelry, and related artifacts are displayed at design, history, and art institutions as featured elements or to add context.   This season, many of the exhibitions added adaptive clothing, textiles and accessories in their focus on gender, body size and accessibility.  The Cooper-Hewitt’s Access+Ability is open through the summer, but the two fashion exhibitions are currently down.  All three web sites are still active, as is the site for a designer who focuses on adaptive clothing, so I am listing them at the end.

The Body: Fashion & Physique (The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, December 5, 2017 — May 5, 2018, curated by Emma McClendon), concerns clothing for men and women and and what interventions are required to fit bodies into those fashions.  It begins with a quick tour of garments and stays, corsets and crinolines from the 18th and 19th centuries to introduce the manipulation of bodies into an ideal. As the exhibit enters the 20th century, undergarments relying on elastic fabrics and bra construction do not suffice and it takes lifestyle changes (diet, exercise, surgery) to mold the body.

Just before the exhibition returned to the present, there was a section dedicated to body diversity garments for Plus sized women with garments designed for assistive technologies, all on dress forms.  Combining them into an “Other” or special needs category is problematic at best, although mitigated by being presented as victories over the fashion industry.  A short video shows FIT Professor Deborah Beard discussing how technical design and prototyping can be used to serve a variety of bodies. The examples of Plus size include two “red carpet” outfits — a glorious red crepe gown designed for actress Leslie Jones by Christian Siriano, 2016, and LaQuan Smith’s “naked” gown for a pregnant Kim Kardashian, and a 2015 outfit by Chromat, which uses spandex and boning, without a fabric layer, to make an evening gown that resembles a dress form displaying a crinoline.  

The platform ends with garments resembling contemporary fashion but designed for adaptive use for people with disabilities.   A [post-] Mastectomy Jacket, 2017, was designed by Grace Jun, director of the Open Style Lab, in neoprene and mesh with computer chips.   As explained by the caption: “Electronic components in sleeves and sides connect to chip hidden in the back, which records the wearer’s range of motion [during this temporary disability]. The data can be accessed by a Physical Therapy or a Doctor to aid in the recovery process, highlighting how technology is changing the relation between fashion and the body.”  The invention of neoprene was also featured as a mid-20th century innovation in an overlapping FIT exhibition, the Underwater section of Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme.  Those of us who use neoprene wrist or knee braces are grateful for its therapeutic heat retention powers.  The platform ends with a white cotton shirt with extra sleeve designed by Lucy Jones, 2017, for  “a seated body,”  including wheelchair users.  As well as cropping the shirt, Jones’ experiments focus on the selection and placement of fasteners at seam points and the use of magnetized components. The sleeves can be changed easily at bound seams at armsceye and elbow, which are lowered to avoid interfering with the back and arm rests.   

Jones’ adaptive garments were also included in  Items: Is Fashion Modern? (Museum of Modern Art, October 1, 2017 — January 28, 2018). MoMA had not presented a fashion exhibition since 1944’s Are Clothes Modern?  so the project (exhibit, symposium and book) was eagerly awaited.  Developed by the Department of Architecture and Design, it filled the large special exhibition space on the 6th floor with temporary walls and platforms, creating islands of garments and accessories by genre.  One island, Shirts and Shirtdresses, included mens’ and womens’ garments, catalogue pages, and an accessible technology shirt by Maura Horton (MagnaReady).  Lucy Jones, who was first recognized for her Seated Design line,  was asked to create the prototype of torso shaping panty hose for wheelchair-using women for the exhibition. The adaptation was in her use of a large, easy-grip zipper at the side seam. The display on a half-mannequin seated on a stool was criticized by accessibility advocates and by Nadine Stewart on Fashion Historia (Stewart, 2018).  MoMA’s minimalist captions offered little information on the installation, but Jones’ website, detail her technical design and her view of why these are useful garments. (

Much of the progressive connecting among the fashion and disability communities comes from  the Parsons School of Design’s Open Style Lab, a 10-week research program which produced Jones and Horton.

Cooper-Hewitt, the Smithsonian Design Museum, developed a major project on adaptive design and technology throughout most of its 2018 season.  It comprises an exhibition, Access + Ability (open through September 3, 3018), a series of symposia and talks, and an intensive weekend for design students, as well as dedicating its Design Access Lab to the topic.  The project’s web site features video documentation of many of the activities, as well as an ongoing blog series. The focus is on artifacts whose adaptive design makes them more universally functional. As a member of the Steering Committee of the Museum Access Consortium, I collaborated with the Cooper-Hewitt to develop a Professional Development Workshop on Universal Design and Exhibitions that was presented in the Design Access Lab, February 12, 2018.

While there is very little clothing per se, curator Cara McCarty included many smart textiles.  Her blog, “Designers are Optimists,” highlights uses of conductive yarns to laser printed fabrics. (McCarty, 2018) posted 3.23, 2018. In addition, two sets of jewelry that double as assistive technology are featured in the exhibition — Maptic (tactile navigation systems for the visually impaired, 2017), which comes as wearable bracelets and necklaces that send navigation information via vibrations, and Zon, a hearing aid as fashionable earrings by Stewart Karten Designs, 2011.

Conclusion:  As a fashion historian, exhibition developer and museum accessibility proponent, I was pleased that creative solutions to access based on clothing and textile technology were featured by the museums.  The next step will be to solve the problems of display. It may be that the exhibition teams decided to integrate the adaptive garments into design scheme employing dress forms, not mannequins, but the decision not to show garments for people who use wheelchairs in wheelchairs may have interfered with the comprehension of the garments and appreciation by those who would use them.    

As a member of the Steering Committee of the Museum Access Consortium, I collaborated with the Cooper-Hewitt to develop a Professional Development Workshop on Universal Design and Exhibitions that was presented in the Design Access Lab, February 12, 2018.


On-line References:

McClendon, Emma. “The Body: Fashion and Physique” exhibition brochure.  NY: The Museum at FIT, 2017.

Antonelli, Paola, and Michelle Millar Fisher. Items: Is Fashion Modern? Exhibition brochure.  New York: Artbook and Museum of Modern Art, 2017.

Stewart, Nadine, “A Critical eye falls on MOMA’s ‘Item: Is Fashion Modern?’ ” in Fashion Historia, http:fashionhistorian.met/blog/20180103/a-critical-eye-falls-o-momas-items-is-fashion-modern/

Cara McCarty,  “Designers are Optimists: A Snapshot of Contemporary Design,” Blog postedMarch.23, 2018.(



The Ongoing Fist

Black Power!, the exhibition at the Schomburg Center, has been extended.  Both it, and the poster exhibition Power in Print, will now be available to view until March.  Make sure that you see them.  The extension gives me the opportunity and impetus to dedicate another blog to the fist as an icon of protest and power. 

Power in Print includes a poster for the (NY) Coalition for a Black Count, exhorting viewers to make sure that they were represented in the 1970 census.  The power fist holds a ball point pen, cocked and ready to make sure that “Every Black included in the ‘70 Census means more Black jobs, housing, schools, hospitals.  More Black congressmen, judges, legislators.  More Black pride.  More Black strength.”   I had not planned to highlight this poster since its text required contextualization.  But the current administration is manipulating the categories included in the 2020 census planning (eliminating LGBT and imposing immigration status), so it has become timely again. 

There is a good selection of fists in the Whitney Museums’ current exhibition, An Incomplete History of Protest.  Most of the exhibit is very specific, providing background, protest, and response for a selection of causes — civil rights, voting rights, anti-war movements, etc.  But, the central gallery has two large walls of posters and flyers, framed and hung in a mosaic of rectangles.  The idea was, I think, to elicit memories of random walls, covered with posters announcing marches, protests and boycotts.   Three  large pick-up captions identify designers, if known, or sponsors of the event/cause for the walls.  This style of display highlights graphics over the organizational history presented elsewhere, as in the gallery on the Guerrilla Girls.  The walls include serigraphs of various kinds and could be used to document the rise of offset printing, but I was looking for fists.  

And I found:

a classic red ink fist, credited to designer Harvey Hacker, 1960

a Unite!  Fist, ca.1966,  grabbing the ring of a CND (Committee for Nuclear Disarmament) peace sign

A fist growing out of a Woman symbol (elsewhere credited to the London See Red Women’s Workshop)

A purple fists holding a green peace branch promoting the Students Mobilization and strike, which strove for almost a decade to end the war in Vietnam and Southeast Asia.

I saw a wonderful new fist graphic on Facebook this week.   It disappeared, as things do on Facebook, but returned, so here is the corrected description: the red and white stripes form the background, the hand is covered with white stars on blue, and the single fingernail is red.  I hope to find it on one of the Women’s March sites or on a poster, button or t-shirt at the NYC March.

Museums and archival centers have a responsibility to protect as well as collect and interpret artifacts.  All of these posters were made to grab attention on a wall or handed out on the street.  Seeing them lined up in decorous frames is incongruous.   But, they were made, expecting to have brief lifespans.  Now, 50 years later, we can appreciate their graphic and political power and be grateful that they were saved for the current audience.  

The revolution will be… documented and preserved

You have until the end of the year to spend time in The Schomburg Center’s exhibition on Black Power!  I have recommended it twice already this Fall, in a blog about the Schomburg’s James Baldwin celebration and in one that raved about the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibit on Black radical women artists and art collectives.  Curated by Dr. Sylviane Diouf with contributions from scholars using the Schomburg collections, it looks at the political movement, Black Power, introduced as a unifying concept by SNCC’s Stokely Carmichael and Willie Ricks, through focuses on organizations, such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Black Panthers, as well as the movement’s impact on politics, education, the Black Arts Movement, and popular culture.  Although one slogan associated with politics in this period (1960s-1970s) was “the revolution will be televised,” I was surprised at how many of the artifacts showing organizing and spreading the word were mimeographed. There were exhibit cases of magazines, newsletters and books, as well as posters on the walls.

The word, the logos, the fonts, the layouts all revealed the energy behind making the movements go national and international.  The exhibition itself makes use of the stark black and white color scheme, with the main and section titles in white, pockmarked letters, with variations on the raised fist associated with protest.    There were videos throughout the gallery and in an enclosed room, also used for orientation for the many visiting school groups.  The audio track is excellent, ranging from “Lift Every Voice and Sing” to Nina Simone “Young, Gifted and Black.”

You have until March to see the accompanying exhibition Power in Print.  This show focuses on posters from the movement.   This is a wonderful selection by Dr. Diouf with Isissa Komada-John both for its historical context and as a survey of creative poster design.  A pair of Charlie Bible-designed poster-sized pages feature poems and ortraits of Sonia Sanchez and LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka). An uncredited poster for the 1979 Bronx Solidarity Day General Strike reflects influence from Soviet constructivist graphics (possibly via 1930s left-wing union flyers), with cut-out newsprint figures on diagonal swipes of black, green and red. An unnamed designer solved the difficult job of bringing graphic power to what was basically a detailed schedule for the renaming of the Brooklyn Malcolm X Boulevard.  The easily recognizable face and hair of Angela Davis appeared in many posters, most notably a serigraph by Paul Davis, whose graphics usually showed NY Shakespeare Festival productions.  

The last thing in the Main Gallery exhibition — if you follow the curatorial plan — is a photograph by Rufus Hinton of Willie Ricks, pasting up a Black Power bumper sticker on a wall, while watched by 3 small children.  The bumper sticker is long gone, but black power belongs to those children and the generations who grew up with the slogans, logos and raised fists.

Try to go up to the Harlem Malcolm X Boulevard, take the express to 135th St. and see the exhibitions.  If you miss them, there is also an excellent resource guide available from or :

“our advocacy Fair is a great…”

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47e1-2772-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.rIn most of this country, Fairs are a summer tradition. State or County Fairs are about pride, agriculture, social enjoyment, rides, and food. Think Charlotte’s Web or the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, State Fair.  Unless it is a year for presidential campaigns, they are generally non-political and the nearest thing to controversy is concern about the calorie count of deep fried candy bars. 

This Fall, however, New York is rife with Advocacy Fairs, events where social justice organizations set up tables for conversations, mailing list sign-ups, and possibly, recruiting new volunteers.  There has been at least one each weekend since the street fairs stopped in November and recruiting moved indoors.  Maybe, one each weekend since the fair set up at the Women’s March.  Today’s, Democracy Sunday,  was linked to an all-day event on urban activism around social justice.    It included (and, for me, began) with a program aimed at people who are already active volunteers in the local public schools.  From Volunteering to Advocacy was aimed at increasing the comfort level so that what we already do, Direct Service promoting reading for one or two children, becomes advocacy, activism and organizing.

The Fairs are of particular interest to me not just because I agree with many of the causes, but also because I have long had an interest in the politicized Fairs of the mid-19th century.  My research, which is usually exhibition-driven, keeps looping back to this on-going concern with how women supported social advocacy causes at a time when they were not allowed to manage money.  In other words,  how can you fund raise without access to funds?  I call the full project “The Origins of the Cake Sale.”  So, while I was at this morning’s sale, learning about current organizations, I was thinking about Abolitionist, Jubilee, Sanitary, and Freedmen Fairs of the 1850s – 1870s.  The engraving shows volunteer staff at a Brooklyn  Sanitary Fair in 1864, NYPL Digital Collection.   Larger skirts, so the folding chairs and tables would be replaced with much larger furniture; no e-mail or telephone numbers, and even pens and paper might be limited, so the sign-up process would be different.  Probably tea and coffee would be offered, but no pile of clementines.  Probably biscuits instead of bagels.   Same level of avid enthusiasm and commitment to inclusion, and, tragically, some of the same causes.

for Day without Art

December 1 is the International day for recognition of the world with AIDS/HIV.  It is an anniversary of nothing specific, but an opportunity for the medical and public health communities to look at progress, or at least, changes, in the pandemic’s impact on the world.  

Concurrently and conversely, it has been identified for over 25 years as the Day Without Art.  Day Without Art began before treatment, long before the disease shifted from fatal to chronic.  It recognized the impact of AIDS/HIV on the world in general, but focused on its impact on the arts.  During those years, December 1 was recognized at the very least by the public wearing of red ribbons, whose origins in the Gay Men’s Health Crisis’ “safety pins for safe sex” campaign have been almost forgotten.  It also refers to the wearing of red fabric poppy lapel pins to commemorate Armistice Day. 

In the early days, institutions took the “Without” very seriously.  Museums closed for the day or closed exhibitions.  As organized by VisualAIDS, institutions hung gigantic X banners or quilt panels in their public spaces, especially those with large windows or lobbies, so that those which stayed open made visitors enter under or through the display.  

Libraries and community centers did not close, but held informational programs or screenings.  Those which were actively documenting the crisis (as public health or through the arts), presented those archival collections or oral histories to the public.  The staff at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, where I worked, found different ways to identify the day, depending on which temporary exhibitions were up. For exhibitions of photographs one year or posters another, a staff member put black tape over the names of those who had died.  Another year, flowers were placed under photographs in an exhibition on post-modern performance, recognizing that the new art form had been especially devastated by the pandemic. We found both flowers and red ribbons under frames for a more recent exhibition on head shots.   

Our permanent response was to solicit names from the librarians and visitors and listed them in small booklets, bound in red ribbon.  We made additional booklets for the five staff members who died from AIDS in the early years.

This year, Day Without Art will be commemorated as a day with art focused on AIDS. There are an international array of film screenings, discussions and events, which can be found on the Visual AIDS web page,   In NYC, screenings and talks at the Whitney Museum and the Schomburg Center for Black History and Culture are already full to capacity, but the film, Alternative Endings, Radical Beginnings, will be looped at the Bronx Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, BRIC, the Museum of Art and Design, the Museum of the City of New York, and other locations around the area.  Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, Classical Action, and Dancers Responding to AIDS will be reaching out to their supporters and audiences, as will the fashion and decor design communities and many bookstores.  In San Francisco, the GLBT History Museum will open AIDS Activism in SF, 1981 – 1990, which will become part of its permanent installation,  Check your local LGBTQ Archives or community center for activity in your area.  If you don’t have an LGBTQ archives or community center, try the library or historical society.  Then, think seriously about founding an LGBTQ archive and/or community.

The medical and social aspects of the disease are not over.  AIDS continues to refuse to disappear from the world.  Think about that as well on December 1, Day Without Art.

“But, Then You Read” Baldwin

Next week’s outsidethemuseumblog will continue my appreciations of the current crop of exhibitions on protest and African American artists in the 1960s-. But, before it comes out, I need to make a suggestion for Saturday, September 23th. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is presenting But Then You Read, an all-day symposium on James Baldwin, who observed and participated in civil and cultural protests in that period.  James Baldwin is having a protracted renaissance with popular and academic attention being paid to him and his writings. I never understood why it took so long, but it may be that the critics and historians who admired his prose and political writings were uncomfortable with his novels.

Those of you who know the person who writes this blog, know that the quotation after my e-mail signature (a practice popularized by library and publishing professionals) is the text from which Schomburg took the symposium title. “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.” I think of it as the theme for everyone who ever felt misunderstood or misappreciated.  Reading doesn’t make the rest of the world understand or appreciate you, but it brings to your own personal angst the understanding that others have also felt angst of their own. Baldwin himself discovered books at an NYPL branch and his archives are now housed at the Schomburg.

I found the quotation from Early Essays not at The New York Public Library, but on the wall on west 19th Street.  To be specific, on the gallery wall at New York Live Arts, the performing arts center.   Live Arts, formed by the merger of Dance Theatre Workshop and the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, has an gallery wall in full view of the street windows.  It often shows art or design, while a perpendicular wall has video art.   The April 2014 Liveideas (the annual humanities festival developed by New York Live Arts) was dedicated to Baldwin and quotations from his works provided the graphic installation on the window wall.   The Festival events were popular and transcribing quotes would have impeded the audience getting into the performance spaces, so I returned to 19th Street and stood outside the windows to write it out.  So, thank you, Bill T. for sponsoring liveideas, for your recognition of James Baldwin, and for including that quotation on the wall.  Video of the Baldwin liveideas events can be found through the New York Live Arts website.

The Schomburg’s readings and discussion is presented by The New York Public Library in collaboration with Times Talks. It runs from 11 to 5. It will be livestreamed, but if you go to the Schomburg, you can also see the exhibitions, which I will be discussing in my next blog. Try not to miss the symposium – live or livestreamed.

Do not miss this exhibition

This blog is not outside the museum.  It is urging you strongly to go into the museum and see a major exhibition —  We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965 – 1985 through September 17, 2017. Brooklyn Museum

Part of the “Reimagining Feminism” year at the Brooklyn Museum, the brilliant exhibition literally wrap around the permanent Judy Chicago Dinner Party installation. This works beautifully – you ignore the odd shaped gallery spaces except when actually looking on the floor plan to make sure that you didn’t miss anything. It was organized by Brooklyn Museum staff Catherine Morris, Curator of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, and Rujeko Hockley. I first saw it as an addition to a visit to the Georgia O’Keefe exhibit, but have returned often to focus on it alone.

The posters, prints, sculpture, archival cases and videos are organized to represent the organizations of artists and activists (a phrase that is repeated within the exhibit). The artists and activists who are represented include the very well known visual artists, such as Elizabeth Catlett, Lois Maillou Jones, Ana Medieta, Alison Saar, Betye Saar, Faith Ringgold, and Carrie Mae Weems, who would also be represented in a survey of 20th century artists.   It also includes filmmakers Camille Billops and Julie Dash.   I was delighted to see a life-size video wall dedicated to dancer/choreographer Blondell Cummings.  I was even more thrilled to discover poster artists whose posters I knew, and learn the names inside the cooperatives and organizational titles.

You have two weeks – get there.

Sculptor and printmaker Elizabeth Catlett is one of the multi-talented artists included in Black Radical Women. The display of her sculpture can be seen on its own or in visual context as the curators took advantage of the odd-shaped galleries.   In addition, one of her linocuts in included in a grouping of prints that sets up a continuum of art prints and political posters. It is an important curatorial statement of 20th – 21st century art that needed to be made.

To see more Catlett prints, take the 2 or 3 to the 14th Street stop, exit at 13th St. and walk west to the Whitney Museum of American Art. The ongoing exhibition Where We Are: Selection from the Whitney’s Collection, 1900 – 1960, includes 12 prints included in the

Section entitled “The Strength of Collective Man.”   I hope for a retrospective exhibition of Catlett’s American and Mexican prints someday, but was thrilled for the selection from The Negro Women at the Whitney. As well as the portraits of individuals (Phyllis Wheatley, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman), it includes four of the prints of anonymous women’s roles, such as the singer and the organizer. The final group has bitter titles, identifying ways that Jim Crow laws forced an African American woman is to be special –special water fountains, special houses, etc. medium_Catlett_95_203_cropped

The image with the blog, “My right is a future of equality with other Americans” was designed in 1946-1947 and should be dated, but is not.  “And a special fear for my loved ones” is terrifying, a brilliant composition of line, and as strong a political statement against lynching as I can imagine.

Caption: Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012), My right is a future of equality with other Americans, 1947, printed 1989, from I am the Negro woman (re-titled The Black Woman, 1989). Linoleum cut: sheet, 10 5/16 × 7 1/2 in. (26.2 × 19.1 cm); image (irregular), 9 1/8 × 6 1/8 in. (23.2 × 15.6 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Print Committee 95.203 Art © Catlett Mora Family Trust/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY