Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme

September 15, 2017 – January 6, 2018

patricia-mears-headshotWritten by: Patricia Mears, deputy director of The Museum at FIT and lead curator of Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme.

This week’s Expedition blog illustrates the challenges that my colleagues, Liz Way and Ariele Elia, and I faced while charting a new topic in fashion history: the influence of expeditions on high style clothing. While there are a growing number of scholarly publications on both subjects, almost nothing exists on their overlapping histories. In addition, many books and articles contain information that is sometimes inaccurate and/or not fully detailed.

It has come to my attention, then, that there are inaccuracies in my essay for the companion book to the exhibition, also titled Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme. I am fortunate that this blog (published well after the submission of the Expedition texts to our publisher last year) gives us an opportunity correct any misinformation.

"Eddie’s down jackets and sleeping bags were so prized by the airmen stationed in Alaska during the World War II Aleutian Campaign that they were wagered in high-stakes poker games. When the U.S. Army Air Forces brass got wind of this, they asked Eddie to design a cold-weather flight suit for them. He built the B-9 Parka and A-8 Flight Pants, the U.S. military’s first down-insulated flight suit." Photograph courtesy of the Eddie Bauer Archives.

“Eddie’s down jackets and sleeping bags were so prized by the airmen stationed in Alaska during the World War II Aleutian Campaign that they were wagered in high-stakes poker games. When the U.S. Army Air Forces brass got wind of this, they asked Eddie to design a cold-weather flight suit for them. He built the B-9 Parka and A-8 Flight Pants, the U.S. military’s first down-insulated flight suit.” Photograph courtesy of the Eddie Bauer Archives.

Our colleague Colin Berg, the Eddie Bauer Brand Historian, has clarified the facts behind Eddie Bauer’s innovative, down-filled jacket. In the book, I document the creation and influence of this now ubiquitous coat, one that in recent years has been seen on the most prestigious high fashion runways. But a number of the details I cited were either incorrect or vague.

I thank Colin for helping me correct these errata.

Colin is the Brand Historian at Eddie Bauer, a position he’s held since 2007. As the historian and brand storyteller, he curates the company archives, conducts tours, and speaks at local museums and historical societies. He has also shared the company’s history at media events in New York and Munich, and will be traveling to Cologne, Germany this fall as part of the opening of an Eddie Bauer shop-in-shop. Colin’s background is as a writer; he has been a professional copywriter for 30 years.

For my essay, I relied primarily on a biography by Robert Spector – The Legend of Eddie Bauer, published in 1994 – as well as a magazine article Spector wrote about Bauer in the early 1990s. Ironically, this first edition of his book had a number of factual inaccuracies that were corrected in a second edition published seventeen years later. Colin notes that although the “inaccuracies do not change the fundamental story,” they “don’t jibe with the facts.”
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patricia-mears-headshot

Harper's Bazaar, May 1966, photograph by Bob Richardson / Art Partner.

Harper’s Bazaar, May 1966, photograph by Bob Richardson / Art Partner.

Written by: Patricia Mears, deputy director of The Museum at FIT and curator of Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme.

One of the most compelling components of Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme was fashion photography of the 1960s. My fellow curators, Liz Way and Ariele Elia, and I all found this decade to be the era in which expeditions made a decided impact on high fashion. Not only were designers turning to the Space Age, deep sea diving, and the Arctic for inspiration, so too were fashion editors. We were so taken with the vibrant imagery that we chose John Cowan’s girl on an ice floe as the “poster girl” for our exhibition and book.

The influence of expeditions on 1960s fashion photography was celebrated brilliantly in the pages of leading magazines throughout the decade. This phenomenon is understandable, as the rise of youth styles and the deterioration of established fashion codes allowed photographers to experiment far beyond their studios. Magazine editors occasionally styled models in actual space suits and diving equipment. They also clad their models in outrageous fashions while diving in the ocean or standing on the frozen tundra.

China Machado, Russian Snow Leopard by James Terence Brady of Bonwit Teller, St. Donat, Quebec, June 25, 1962, photograph by Richard Avedon. © The Richard Avedon Foundation.

China Machado, Russian Snow Leopard by James Terence Brady of Bonwit Teller, St. Donat, Quebec, June 25, 1962, photograph by Richard Avedon. © The Richard Avedon Foundation.

Harper’s Bazaar, for example, created an editorial spread that was shot in a snowy landscape for the October 1962 issue.¹ Titled “Beautiful Barbarians” and captured by Richard Avedon, the model in the cover image (set on a vertical fold-out), as well as models shot on location and in studios, were swathed in furs such as civet, Mongolian lamb, and even Russian snow leopard. Editorial copy stated that Avedon “calls up the outer steppes of some unimagined frontier — and ambience of fearless, far-out, magnificence. Feathered, furred, leathered, or swathed in silks, his Beautiful Barbarians project is a proud, untamed, magnetism which all women may look to . . .”² The lead model in the spread was China Machado. Of Portuguese and Chinese/Indian descent, her non-western looks enhanced the “exotic” look of the “barbarian” images that, in turn, articulated the period’s racist view that indigenous peoples were less civilized than cultures south of the Arctic, an idea that continued decades after they were first denigrated by early European explorers.

Despite the less-than-enlightened approach of some fashion imagery, dramatic location shoots became a mainstay of Vogue magazine from 1963 to 1971, when Diana Vreeland was its editor-in-chief. Dynamic and highly creative, Vreeland consistently pushed the limits of fashion styling and photography throughout her decades-long career. She was among the first editors to oversee location shoots around the world while an editor at Harper’s Bazaar during World War II. By the time she arrived at Vogue, Vreeland not only expanded the scope of travel to exotic locations, she amped up the glamour quotient and sense of daring.
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Michael Goitia bio imageMichael Goitia is The Museum at FIT’s senior exhibition manager. He is the person responsible for building the exhibition sets and bringing the exhibition designer’s vision to life. Expedition: Fashion From the Extreme features a particularly dramatic set, and Mike sat down with us to talk about building it and other exhibitions at the museum.

1. Tell us about your job–what is an exhibition manager?
In the most uncomplicated terms, an exhibition manager is similar to the project manager at a construction site. As exhibition manager, I am responsible for making sure the exhibitions at MFIT are done on time and do not go over budget. The exhibition department at FIT consists of two factions: campus projects and exhibition production.

Gabrielle Lauricella is the campus projects coordinator; she is responsible for the interaction between The Museum at FIT and the school’s Art & Design department and faculty. Ryan Wolfe is our exhibition production coordinator; he is involved with the History Gallery and our large exhibitions in the main gallery, where Expedition is on view.

I work with Ryan and Gabrielle to create production schedules for the exhibitions, and I confer with Fred Dennis, the museum’s senior curator of costume, to help plan the long-term exhibition calendar. I am responsible for the installer budget, finding vendors, sourcing materials, and general problem-solving. I hire the exhibition installers, who have a huge impact on how the department operates, even though they are part-time.

Some exhibition loans come with strict guidelines regarding handling and display; I work with the curatorial department to ensure that those guidelines are met. I also work very closely with the exhibition designer and curator. At the beginning of the production phase for each exhibition, we meet to discuss the subject of the show and then move on to the concept of what the show will look like. The designer will submit a plan, and then I figure out how the show will be built and I start to do research and design for elements in the show.

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patricia-mears-headshotWritten by: Patricia Mears, deputy director of The Museum at FIT and curator of Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme.

My fellow curators and I are often asked, “how did you come up with this exhibition idea?” Sometimes we find it in obvious places: our permanent museum collection, through research, or on the runway. Occasionally, a cultural or political event ignites our imaginations.

The idea for Expedition was sparked when I first saw the fall/winter 2011 collection of the young designer Joseph Altuzarra. His riff on the mid-century American military parka—known as the fishtail—was a hit that artfully blended diametrically opposed entities: survival gear and chicness. A year later, Altuzarra repeated this seemingly incongruous blend in his 2012 fall/winter collection. Not only did his parkas garner a healthy amount of press from the moment they appeared on the runways, street style stars kept the coats in the news months later, wearing them in February 2013 during New York Fashion Week. I began to wonder how Altuzarra was able to imbue utilitarian objects with such beauty and desirability. The answer to that turned out to be far more complex than I anticipated.

Advertisement in Outdoor Life for Eddie Bauer's first down jacket, 1939. Photograph courtesy of the Eddie Bauer Archives.

Advertisement in Outdoor Life for Eddie Bauer's first down jacket, 1939. Photograph courtesy of
the Eddie Bauer Archives.

Immediately, I understood that the basics of these garments were common sense: that staying warm and dry were primary goals of the early Arctic explorers. Wise and successful expeditioneers wore the indispensable garments invented by the Arctic peoples, especially the parka, or anorak. What I wanted to find out was how the parka became, in just a few decades, an indispensable item of clothing worn by millions around the world.

One path this ubiquitous coat followed into the modern wardrobe was through winter sports, such as skiing. During the interwar years, parkas made for winter sports by leading couture houses were touted in magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. The popularity of the parka and its cousin, the down-filled jacket, grew steadily after World War II. The earliest modern down-filled jackets were created during the 1930s. Eddie Bauer designed one for outdoor excursions (which will be detailed in a future blog) while Charles James crafted an extraordinary couture version that inspired designers decades later.

Pat Cleveland in Esquire magazine, May 1973 wearing Charles James’s 1937 eiderdown coat, photograph by Juan Ramos.

Pat Cleveland in Esquire magazine, May 1973 wearing Charles James’s 1937 eiderdown coat, photograph by Juan Ramos.

James’s white silk satin and eider down masterpiece graced the pages of Harper’s Bazaar in 1938. It reappeared in magazines during the early1970s and, I theorize, may have inspired New York-based designers soon thereafter. In 1976, Giorgio Sant Angelo’s quilted “ski blouson” was photographed for the September issue of Vogue. By 1978, the July issue of Vogue was featuring a down-filled version made from “a luminous pale copper color” by Geoffrey Beene. Later, in September 1978, Vogue presented a sportier version, this time by Perry Ellis.

Arguably, the most famous version of the new, fashionable, down-filled outerwear garment was Norma Kamali’s ankle-length sleeping bag coat. She came up with the idea in the early 1970s while on a camping trip. She noted that “for a few years I continued to use actual sleeping bags,” eventually creating “two coats, and stitching them together.” The parka’s popularity also made gains beyond the realm of high fashion, as it become an important clothing item for cutting-edge, antiestablishment groups.

One of the most popular parkas was descriptively named the “fishtail,” because it was designed with a long, pointed back. It was originally commissioned by the US Army at the onset of the Korean War, as protection against that country’s brutally cold and severe winters. Versions of the fishtail parka were called the M-1948 (or M48) and M-1951 (or M51), thus denoting the year each was designed and manufactured. Hundreds of thousands of these parkas were made, all from the finest industrial-grade fabrics. They were constructed for durability as well as warmth and with design details that included drawstrings and a range of pockets and hoods.
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Pierre Cardin, Cosmocorps collection, 1967. Photograph by Yoshi Takata / DR. Copyright Archives Pierre Cardin

Pierre Cardin, Cosmocorps collection, 1967. Photograph by Yoshi Takata / DR. Copyright Archives Pierre Cardin.

Elizabeth Way bio image-v2Elizabeth (Liz) Way is an assistant curator at The Museum at FIT. She has been with the museum since 2013. Liz assisted deputy director Patricia Mears, curator of Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme, and also wrote an essay titled, “Looking Back at the Future: Spacesuits and Space Age Fashion” for the companion book to the exhibition.

I first joined the Expedition curatorial team in the fall of 2015, when Patricia asked me to write my essay on Space Age fashion. Although I had heard that Patricia was working on a new exhibition involving extreme environments, this was my first introduction to the themes of the show. I was blown away by her unique thesis, which combined exploration, science, technology, utilitarian clothing, and high fashion. This was an unexamined topic in fashion studies. I was also very excited to write about fashion and space and I started researching right away.

Paco Rabanne, wedding dress, circa 1968, France. Gift of Montgomery Ward. © The Museum at FIT

Paco Rabanne, wedding dress, circa 1968, France. Gift of Montgomery Ward.
© The Museum at FIT

For a subject this new, the challenge was to find a way to tie together the existing research and apply it to the objects we would show in the exhibition. I started by reading as much as I could on the development of the spacesuit and quickly discovered that almost no scholarly work has been done on how spacesuit technology has influenced fashion design, and surprisingly little has been written on Space Age fashion. One great resource was Nicholas De Monchaux’s book, Fashioning Apollo. De Monchaux looks at the Apollo spacesuit as a design object and points out the ways in which its manufacture relate to creating haute couture—a really helpful approach for conflating technology, fashion, and ultimately, popular culture.

After I established an understanding (by no means an expertise!) of how spacesuits were developed, I dug into historical conceptions of futuristic aesthetics. I looked back at nineteenth-century science fiction to get an idea of how concepts of futuristic clothing developed so that I would be prepared with some context before I pivoted into Space Age fashion. The best way to investigate this style phenomenon is through the fashion photography of the era, which is wild and full of fun and whimsy. I found that going back to primary sources, such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, helped me to understand fashion’s relationship with the space race during the 1960s. Richard Avedon’s photographs for the April 1965 issue of Harper’s Bazaar were especially revealing for me. The issue, which Avedon guest-edited, was full of energy, revolving around a Space Age theme and featuring the latest futuristic fashions, as well as models wearing an actual silvery Mercury mission spacesuit, on loan from NASA.
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Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme Trailers

  • By The Museum at FIT
  • In Videos
  • On 12 Sep | '2017
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The Museum at FIT’s latest fashion exhibition, Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme, opens to the public on Friday, September 15th. In anticipation of the occasion, we invite you to enjoy four short trailers that are related to each of the key ‘inhospitable environments’ featured in the exhibition — the deep sea, the Arctic, outer space, and the peaks of the highest mountains.

Each video features an object on view in the exhibition.

  • The ‘Deep Sea’ Trailer features an Alexander McQueen dress from spring/summer 2010 inspired by bioluminescent underwater creatures.
  • The ‘Arctic’ Trailer focuses on a hooded ensemble by Yohji Yamamoto, fall 2000.
  • The ‘Space’ Trailer travels across the black and white surface of a dress by Michel Goma for Patou.
  • A fall/winter 2014 puffer coat by Junya Watanabe emphasizes protection from cold and winds in the ‘Mountaineering’ Trailer.

Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme runs through January 6, 2018 at The Museum at FIT in NYC.