Written 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.
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.
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.