Elizabeth (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.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.
Researching and writing essays was only part of what the curatorial team and guest essayists had to do in order to complete for the book. We worked with our museum’s editor, Julian Clark, to fine tune our work and selected images to accompany our essays. Clearing copyrights for images is a huge part of creating an exhibition book that often gets overlooked. While we were working with our publisher, Thames and Hudson, to complete the book, we were simultaneously selecting objects to build the narrative of the exhibition. We explored our own collection, but also looked to the collections of other museums, like the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Museum of History & Industry in Seattle, and the Victoria & Albert in London. We borrowed objects from private lenders and design houses, such as Chanel and Isaac Mizrahi, and we also acquired new pieces that will be featured in the exhibition and then live on in our permanent collection.
As you can imagine, creating an exhibition of this magnitude was a huge effort by a dedicated team both within MFIT and outside the museum. Pulling together loans from all over the world takes a concerted effort from the museum’s registrars, and getting all the objects safely dressed and into the gallery is expertly handled by our conversation team. Expedition also has a very ambitious and immersive exhibition design, which you’ll be able to read more about in other posts from the museum’s exhibition manager and the exhibition designer. Working with Patricia on Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme, from the initial research to watching the finishing touches be put on the gallery, has been a truly exciting experience! This is a fashion exhibition unlike any created before. It will assuredly help viewers make new connections and inspire more research that relates fashion to seemingly disparate topics.
Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme runs through January 6, 2018 at The Museum at FIT in NYC.