Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme

September 15, 2017 – January 6, 2018

Bio picAnn Coppinger is The Museum at FIT’s Senior Conservator. In the following blog post, she took some time to explain her critical role at the museum and to detail a couple of particularly challenging objects that we were able to include in Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme.

I am a graduate of both of FIT’s Fashion Design and Patternmaking programs. At the beginning of my career, I worked in New York City’s fashion apparel industry, specializing in women’s dresses and sportswear; more specifically I was involved with the manufacture of moderate priced garments. I have especially enjoyed creating patterns and toiles for fashionable garments and the challenge of crafting and manufacturing clothing. After twenty-plus years in the fashion industry, and confronted with a domestic industry on the decline, I discovered FIT’s Graduate Study program for Historic Textiles and Costumes. It seemed to be the perfect marriage of my carefully honed hand skills and super inquisitive mind. That is how I began my career as a textile conservator. I worked at a regional conservation center before coming to The Museum at FIT. For the last ten years, I’ve been managing the conservation department, where I have the opportunity to work on some of the most wonderful and fascinating textile and costume objects.

A conservator is essentially a trained professional who is charged with caring for and protecting material culture objects. The individual usually possesses an interesting mix of creative skills accompanied by scientific knowledge and practical ability, an ostensibly impossible combination of the analytical and the creative.

The practice of conservation can be thought of as an astute investigation into and documentation of objects that are representative of their time and place. Materials and methods of manufacture are recorded, researched, and evaluated in order to determine the best possible stabilization and preservation approach for each individual object. Conservators will always advocate for an artifact’s long-term preservation, to ensure that future generations may enjoy the opportunity to view and interpret it.

At The Museum at FIT, we mount innovative exhibitions that are dependent on very close collaboration among the conservation, curatorial, and exhibition design, and development teams. We form a small, experienced, multidisciplinary group where teamwork is vital. The conservation department is responsible for the stabilization and safe display of all the objects that will be in the exhibition.

There are many inherent challenges associated with conserving and displaying historic textiles and dress. A critical factor in displaying a costume and textile collection is crafting a safe and appropriate presentation of these objects. The creation of the proper silhouette for each garment serves to enhance the viewer’s experience and understanding of the artifact. The condition of each object should always inform display options within the desired design parameters. However, object treatments sometimes don’t work out as planned, and modifications have to be made. Here are some issues we were confronted with while working on Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme.

Madame Grès' après ski ensemble, pictured here in Vogue, is on display in Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme . Vogue , September  15, 1969.

Madame Grès’ après ski ensemble, pictured here in Vogue, is on display in Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme . Vogue , September 15, 1969.

This exhibition features several examples of real fur garments that are either high fashion or are true functional garments created specifically for survival in extreme environments. Fur garments are quite different from more traditional cloth garments, with differing needs and considerations. They are constructed and tailored based on complex joins of a patchwork of animal pelts, while contemporary cloth garments are constructed with more regularly shaped pattern pieces. The pelts tend to become dry and desiccated as they age, presenting unique conservation challenges.

The Madame Grès apres ski ensemble of 1969, worn by the New York socialite Isabel Eberstadt, consists of an off-white, ribbed wool, chunky knit sweater and spectacular, beigey-brown wolf fur pants. The sweater is in excellent condition. The pants, however, showed signs of general wear accompanied by fur loss along the top edges of the contoured waist and high hip area of the pants. Along the top portion of the pants, large fur patches were breaking off and crumbling. The fur skins were dry and desiccated throughout the garment, sounding slightly “crunchy” when being handled, signaling that most likely the skins would continue to crack and split when moved. Before beginning to treat the pants, conservator Nicole Bloomfield spent many hours researching the nature of fur technology and manufacturing in order to gain a firm grasp of the technical issues that she might encounter while undertaking the stabilization of the wolf pants. Upon further examination, she discovered that the construction of the pants was quite complex, with no simple or straight seams. The fur skins were joined by using a very expensive technique whereby very small, herringboned strips are pieced together, creating a more even distribution of the fur.

Conservator Bloomfield examining the detached and loose areas of fur found on the Madame Grès wolf pants.

Conservator Bloomfield examining the detached and loose areas of fur found on the Madame Grès wolf pants.

After very careful examination and documentation, Bloomfield began working with the pants. She attempted to introduce cool moisture into the fur skins in order to relax the fur pelts, making them more supple and pliable. During this process, she noticed that some of the pelts became sticky and concluded that an adhesive had been used while assembling the pants. She tried to remove the adhesive but quickly realized that this further weakened the fur skins. The skins also did not respond well to a more subtle humidification treatment.

The Madame Grès fur pants in a humidification tent undergoing treatment.

The Madame Grès fur pants in a humidification tent undergoing treatment.

Given these complications, it was decided that the ensemble could not withstand the gentle rigors of being dressed on a mannequin, although initially we had planned to dress and display the ensemble on a traditional Schläppi mannequin. Still, the ensemble is an excellent example of couture fashion inspired by a functional extreme garment and was important to the exhibition’s thesis. The curator, the exhibition designer, and I decided to show the ensemble flat, in a slim, elegant Plexiglas case incorporated into the Arctic landscape environment.

Up until the 1980s, a preventative preservation method used in some museums was to either spray, dip or coat organic materials with heavy metal pesticides. This methodology proved to be an excellent preventive method to avoid invertebrate infestations of fur, skin, and feather objects found in ethnographic collections. However, it was later discovered to be quite problematic for collections’ caretakers who would handle these objects without the use of personal protective gear.

The explorer Matthew Henson’s North Pole Expedition Inuit suit of 1909 is also featured in the exhibition. Henson’s blue fox fur parka, polar bear pants, and gut boots were generously lent by The Berkshire Museum, located in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. An initial condition assessment of the suit detected trace amounts of heavy metal toxins on the fur. This discovery was made with the use of specialized X-ray fluorescence equipment. Special care and protective gear had to be worn by all personnel involved in the moving, crating, and installation of this remarkable object. Henson’s Inuit suit is displayed in its own separate custom Plexiglas case in the Arctic section, in close proximity to the Madame Grès ensemble, creating a thought-provoking dichotomy between a functional garment and couture fashion.

Mathew Henson's Inuit suit (far right) and Madame Grès' après ski ensemble (far left) on display in the Arctic section of the exhibition.

Mathew Henson’s Inuit suit (far right) and Madame Grès’ après ski ensemble (far left) on display in the Arctic section of the exhibition.

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

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