Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme

September 15, 2017 – January 6, 2018

Pickman headshotSarah Pickman is a Ph.D. candidate at Yale University studying the history of science and medicine. She contributed the essay “Dress, Image, and Cultural Encounter in the Heroic Age of Polar Exploration” to the book, Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme.

When you’re a graduate student, one of the questions you’re asked most frequently (besides “What are you going to do with that degree?” and “When are you going to finish?”) is, “How did you get interested in that?” In my case, my interest in polar exploration and clothing started with a single pair of boots.

I’ve always been interested in fashion history. I love browsing vintage clothing sales and thrift stores. About seven years ago, I purchased a pair of mid-century sealskin boots at a vintage fair in New York. They intrigued me because, while I knew little about traditional Inuit clothing at the time, the shape and material of the boots seemed to evoke native Arctic footwear, while the laces, short shaft, and rubber soles pointed to shoes made for a mainstream Western market. The boots were a kind of fashion hybrid. I put them in my closet, planning to wear them when the weather was cold enough.

The author's vintage sealskin boots, c. 1940-1960 Produced for Capitol of Canada by Indian Slipper Co., Ltd., Loretteville, Quebec

The author’s vintage sealskin boots, c. 1940-1960
Produced for Capitol of Canada by Indian Slipper Co., Ltd., Loretteville, Quebec

A few years later, I started my Master’s degree at the Bard Graduate Center. There, I took a class on anthropological ways of studying objects in which we students were encouraged to apply what we learned in class to an item we had at home. When it came time to write the final paper, I pulled my sealskin boots out of the closet. Using the boots as a starting point, I began to research the history of how mainstream fashion designers and manufacturers incorporated elements of Inuit clothing into their creations, and how items like parkas and anoraks became synonymous with cold weather wear. I was fascinated by how many anecdotes I found of American, Canadian, and European polar explorers who adopted Inuit clothing and admired its technical sophistication. So many explorers in other regions kept their Western-style garb in the field, afraid of “going native” by wearing local garments. Yet many of the polar explorers I read about had no such reservations.

Even after I handed in the paper for that class I wanted to learn more about these explorers, especially after reading so many page-turning accounts of polar expeditions (including my personal favorite, Alfred Lansing’s Endurance about Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 expedition to Antarctica). My Master’s thesis combined my interests in fashion history and polar exploration, and I’m thrilled that an expanded and reworked version of that thesis is now part of the Expedition companion book. As part of working on the essay for Expedition, I had the chance to conduct research at institutions with incredible archival collections related to polar exploration, including the Explorers Club in New York, the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) at the University of Cambridge, and the Royal Geographical Society and National Maritime Museum in London. At the Explorers Club, curator and archivist Lacey Flint showed me Matthew Henson’s mittens, and at SPRI, right after reading their correspondence in the archive, I was able to see pieces of clothing worn by some of the most famous British polar explorers.

I still hadn’t had enough of polar explorers and their clothes. Two years ago I started a Ph.D. at Yale University in History, in the Program in History of Science and Medicine. I’m currently planning my dissertation, which will look at clothing and other gear for extreme environments, focusing on the Arctic and Antarctica. I’m interested in what clothing and other objects can tell us about concepts of safety and danger, about physical and psychological comfort and discomfort, about what makes an environment “extreme” – and how these ideas vary from culture to culture. While many consider the Arctic extreme, it has had indigenous populations that have survived and thrived across the region for thousands of years.

As part of my research, I’ve been thinking about outsiders who spend an extended amount of time – not just a few months or years, like explorers – in these environments. One example that I’ve started researching is the traders who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), the famous, centuries-old fur trading company, in the Canadian Arctic in the early twentieth century. These agents often spent years at their posts, trading with local Inuit hunters – they were especially interested in the white winter pelts of the Arctic fox, which were in high demand by American and European coat manufacturers. The HBC agents also depended on local Inuit women to make fur clothing for them, in order to survive the long winters. After spending so much time in these fur garments, year after year, did these fur traders view their clothing differently from explorers who used fur both for survival and for publicity?

Leo Manning, manager at the Hudson's Bay Company trading post, lists the items exchanged for furs. Coppermine, N.W.T., [Kugluktuk (formerly Coppermine), Nunavut], 1949.  Richard Harrington / Canada. Dept. of Indian and Northern Affairs / Library and Archives Canada / PA-143236

Leo Manning, manager at the Hudson’s Bay Company trading post, lists the items exchanged for furs. Coppermine, N.W.T., [Kugluktuk (formerly Coppermine), Nunavut], 1949.
Richard Harrington / Canada. Dept. of Indian and Northern Affairs / Library and Archives Canada / PA-143236

Another angle I’m investigating is what happens when technologies developed for an extreme environment go mainstream and become popular in other places. One example I’ve been looking at is Grenfell cloth, a sturdy, densely woven cotton gabardine fabric designed for cold, snowy, and windy conditions. A British textile mill owner named Walter Haythornthwaite developed the cloth in 1923 especially for Sir Wilfred Grenfell, a missionary and doctor who worked in Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada. Soon after, Haythornthwaite made the cloth available to the public, and Grenfell cloth raincoats and sportswear became extremely popular. A similar chain of events happened with one of Wilfred Grenfell’s neighbors in Labrador, an American inventor named Clarence Birdseye, who created the internationally successful Birds Eye frozen food company after observing local Inuit techniques for flash-freezing food. Do items like Grenfell cloth raincoats and Birds Eye frozen peas bring a bit of the extreme environment into our homes? Do we do a bit of “armchair traveling” every time we put on a polar-inspired garment or eat something originally designed for a very different environment?

I still have the vintage sealskin boots that kicked off my interest in polar clothing. While I’ll never get rid of them, I’ve actually only worn them a few times; they’re a bit too small and they rub my ankles. Just like the explorers of a century ago, I’ve found that there’s a tradeoff between practicality and style when it comes to clothing.

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

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