Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme

September 15, 2017 – January 6, 2018

Posts in the North Pole category

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.

Headshot_Lesley Ann BeckLesley Ann Beck is the Senior Communications Manager for the Berkshire Museum. After a career in journalism, she joined the staff of the Berkshire Museum in 2011. She writes and edits press releases, marketing materials, and web content for the Museum, as well as working closely with the exhibition team to research and write labels and panels, interpreting the objects in the galleries. The Berkshire Museum, located in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, is home to an astounding array of interesting objects.

Long a favorite with visitors to the Berkshire Museum, the fur suit worn by Matthew Henson during Admiral Robert E. Peary’s successful 1909 expedition to the North Pole is now on view as part of Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme at The Museum at FIT in New York City.

Matthew Henson’s fur suit worn on his successful 1909 expedition to the North Pole. Courtesy Berkshire Museum.

Matthew Henson’s fur suit worn on his successful 1909 expedition to the North Pole. Courtesy Berkshire Museum.


Headshot Lacey FlintLacey Flint is The Explorers Club Archivist and Curator of Research Collections. Her support of Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme provided a truly unique partnership between two seemingly disparate institutions. She authored the essay, “The Explorers Club: A Brief History,” in the exhibition book, and here, she shares a bit about The Explorers Club’s incredible collections.

In early June of 2015, I received an email, quite out of the blue, from Patricia Mears. The brief missive served two as an introduction to both Patricia and a project she had tentatively entitled Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme. She inquired about visiting The Explorers Club and discussing the scope of the work and the possibility of our potential collaboration. I remember being a bit skeptical of both The Club’s involvement and my own. I wasn’t entirely sure what relevant resources our Collection could provide a project such as this. And thinking of explorers, past and present, in all of their gear as having influenced runway couture? Not possible. Patricia must have never seen early diving helmets or glacier goggles.

On a personal level, I know next to nothing about fashion (often overwhelmingly evident, but never more so than on any cold winter’s day when I try to convince myself that no one will notice I’m attempting to pass off fleece leggings as stockings) or its history. At the time of Patricia’s email, I was only a little more than a year into my tenure at The Club, after finishing my graduate work in Museum Studies at The University of Leicester. We can all thank my year in UK climes for the fleece legging trick.

However, after meeting with Patricia and discussing the project’s thesis, I was absolutely convinced that, yes, my explorers and their gear had indeed influenced fashion. The winter parkas we all have tucked away in our closets were undeniably inspired by polar and mountaineering treks. And what about moon boots and neoprene dresses? All of it could be traced back to various scientific expeditions. The vision and scope of the project was unchartered territory, much like the work and discoveries of Club Members past and present. I enthusiastically agreed to come on board and provide any resources I could. This brought on the next challenge: I was tasked with detailing the history of exploration.

The interior of The Explorers Club Library which features a ceiling from a fifteenth century Italian monastery. The Explorers Club Research Collections.

The interior of The Explorers Club Library which features a ceiling from a fifteenth century Italian monastery. The Explorers Club Research Collections.

What is exploration but curiosity in action? Humans have always been exploring. Thousands of years of nomadic life, diaspora, conquest, trade route discoveries, colonizing, re-colonizing, mapping – and that’s just scratching the surface of geographic exploration. Add to that technology, ethnology, all branches of field science – the list goes on. My assignment then became narrowing the scope of exploration to something manageable and meaningful. I decided to focus on the history of scientific exploration as told through The Explorers Club’s “Famous Firsts.”

Since its inception, members of The Club have dedicated themselves to our mission, which at its most basic level is to explore land, sea, air, and space. Hallmarks of pioneering 20th century exploration have come to be recognized as The Club’s “Famous Firsts.” Robert Peary, the Club’s third President, and Matthew Henson “discovered” the North Pole in 1909. The discovery of the South Pole by Member Roald Amundsen followed soon after in 1911. Club Members Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first to summit Mt. Everest in 1953, and the lowest point on Earth, Mariana Trench, was attained by our Honorary President Don Walsh and Club Fellow Jacques Piccard in 1960. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins reached the moon in 1969 carrying The Explorers Club Flag.