New York’s Museum of Modern Art is showcasing a collection of the 111 items of clothing and accessories that impacted the 20th and 21st centuries entitled Items: Is Fashion Modern? Timeless garments such as Levi’s 501s and the Little Black Dress, and two watches — Rolex and Swatch. But which is more iconic? The battle for the most enduring watch of the 20th century is on …
If we measured success in this exhibition on numbers alone, then Swatch is the clear winner. Its tally includes a 1985 Mille Pattes model, designed by Keith Haring, 1983’s GB100 and GK100 Jelly Fish; plus two ’90s models, while a solitary ’70s Rolex Datejust keeps a cool distance.
Before you get red-faced, the Rolex Datejust is a bestseller today and there’s no dishonouring Rolex. As a matter of substance, the sturdy, man-of-the-world Rolex, born in 1905, has understated classicism and brand prestige cornered.
The Items specimen, a Rolex Datejust Ref. 1601 with a stainless steel Jubilee bracelet and white gold fluted bezel (loaned by Hodinkee, by the way), a successor to the original 1945 Datejust; the first wristwatch with an automatically changing date window. It was a revolution that redefined the relationship to a watch; an innovation that synchronised private with public time, orienting an individual within the world at large.
“Mechanical watches by Rolex embodied the new temporal consciousness of the 20th century … disciplined punctuality and efficiency, [as] two essential demands of modern life,” says Mei Mei Rado, from the Items curatorial team.
But don’t think that the more egalitarian Swatch isn’t significant in its own way. Art has always been a pillar of the fashionable Swatch. Still, Swatch is no mere accessory. It is also functionally sophisticated. The ’80s endeavour fused plastic case (traditionally metal) with a baseplate (traditionally treated as separate), allowing Swatch to counter the inexpensive Japanese digital and quartz watches that threatened the traditional Swiss industry.
It’s also no coincidence that both sides of this sparring duo have short, punchy names that contain their own value statements. Perhaps it’s best to declare this one a tie.
MoMA’s Items: Is Fashion Modern? opened October 1 and ends January 28, 2018