Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme

September 15, 2017 – January 6, 2018

Posts in the The Museum at FIT category

In an intimate conversation at The Museum at FIT’s annual fashion symposium, Fashion, Science, and Exploration, Norma Kamali shares with MFIT’s Deputy Director Patricia Mears the story behind creating the infamous “sleeping bag” coat and what has continued to motivate her through the years.

Watch her tell the story of the “sleeping bag” coat at the 18:38 mark!

Norma Kamali, an FIT graduate, started her eponymous clothing line in 1967. Among her most celebrated creations is the “sleeping bag coat.” Designed in the 1970s, it remains one of the fashion’s best appropriations of extreme environmental wear and is featured in Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme.

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

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.

Kim Ackert headshotKim Ackert, head of the design firm Ackert Architecture, is an internationally renowned architect and a respected professor of architecture, teaching at Harvard, Cornell, Yale, and, most recently, Parsons, The New School. She has designed some of The Museum at FIT’s most transformative exhibitions, including Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s, Yves Saint Laurent + Halston: Fashioning the 70s, and Fairy Tale Fashion. Here, she sheds some light on what went into conceptualizing and realizing the dramatic design of Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme.

1. Describe your job as the exhibition designer. How is this similar to or different from other projects that you design as an architect? Who do you collaborate with during the exhibition design process (curators, lighting designers, exhibition managers, conversation team, etc.)?
The design process for an exhibition is very different from that of an architectural interior space. Building or interior design usually starts with the client’s functional wants and needs and is then translated into a “program,” but an exhibition designer starts with the preliminary list of objects developed by the curator, who in this instance was Deputy Director Patricia Mears and Assistant Curator Elizabeth Way. Although the list may change and evolve, it provides the fundamental concept for the design, which is further developed through a series of loose sketches and historical references for presentation to the entire production team. This team consists of the lighting designer Eric Steding, and the production team managed by Michael Gotia and coordinated by Ryan Wolfe, who advise and do a tremendous amount of research on the materials, construction details, and final touches.

Concept sketch for the Expedition design by Kim Ackert

Concept sketch for the Expedition design by Kim Ackert

2. Describe your design concept for Expedition and how you were inspired to create it.
The planning for Expedition started over a year ago with a visit to the American Museum of Natural History, where the entire team looked at dioramas as a concept for the intro gallery. This idea eventually evolved into the centrally located “safari” diorama of the Serengeti desert. We wanted the main gallery to provoke a sense of “danger” and a connection to the natural world. It was decided early on to create a large, almost overpowering central element that would contain the “outer space” collection. This element quickly became known as “space mountain,” and its tubular frames and translucent panels evoke a man-made and deconstructed world view. The perimeter platforms are designed to be topographical and support large foam blocks sculpted to suggest a variety of natural environments, ranging from deep below sea level to the thin air of the highest mountain peaks! Atalay Harrison, the project architect in our office had experience working with foam and was instrumental in creating the look and feel. He worked closely with Eric Steding’s group Shop to bring the final creation to life.

Atalay making a foam maquette

Atalay making a foam maquette

3. What reactions do you hope to get from the audience?
We hope to create a physical environment that is both a meaningful backdrop for the clothing and a dramatic prelude to the exhibition. As with all the exhibitions we’ve worked on at the museum, experiencing the collection should feel like a journey or an escape into another world.

4. What were the most challenging aspects of designing Expedition and what are you favorite parts of the design?
This was a challenging design because there were a number of different parts and pieces that required a close collaboration with the entire crew and production team. The scale of the space mountain presented some challenges early on, but came together quickly once the details for its construction were established.

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


Harper's Bazaar, May 1966, photograph by Bob Richardson / Art Partner.

Harper’s Bazaar, May 1966, photograph by Bob Richardson / Art Partner.

Written by: Patricia Mears, deputy director of The Museum at FIT and curator of Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme.

One of the most compelling components of Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme was fashion photography of the 1960s. My fellow curators, Liz Way and Ariele Elia, and I all found this decade to be the era in which expeditions made a decided impact on high fashion. Not only were designers turning to the Space Age, deep sea diving, and the Arctic for inspiration, so too were fashion editors. We were so taken with the vibrant imagery that we chose John Cowan’s girl on an ice floe as the “poster girl” for our exhibition and book.

The influence of expeditions on 1960s fashion photography was celebrated brilliantly in the pages of leading magazines throughout the decade. This phenomenon is understandable, as the rise of youth styles and the deterioration of established fashion codes allowed photographers to experiment far beyond their studios. Magazine editors occasionally styled models in actual space suits and diving equipment. They also clad their models in outrageous fashions while diving in the ocean or standing on the frozen tundra.

China Machado, Russian Snow Leopard by James Terence Brady of Bonwit Teller, St. Donat, Quebec, June 25, 1962, photograph by Richard Avedon. © The Richard Avedon Foundation.

China Machado, Russian Snow Leopard by James Terence Brady of Bonwit Teller, St. Donat, Quebec, June 25, 1962, photograph by Richard Avedon. © The Richard Avedon Foundation.

Harper’s Bazaar, for example, created an editorial spread that was shot in a snowy landscape for the October 1962 issue.¹ Titled “Beautiful Barbarians” and captured by Richard Avedon, the model in the cover image (set on a vertical fold-out), as well as models shot on location and in studios, were swathed in furs such as civet, Mongolian lamb, and even Russian snow leopard. Editorial copy stated that Avedon “calls up the outer steppes of some unimagined frontier — and ambience of fearless, far-out, magnificence. Feathered, furred, leathered, or swathed in silks, his Beautiful Barbarians project is a proud, untamed, magnetism which all women may look to . . .”² The lead model in the spread was China Machado. Of Portuguese and Chinese/Indian descent, her non-western looks enhanced the “exotic” look of the “barbarian” images that, in turn, articulated the period’s racist view that indigenous peoples were less civilized than cultures south of the Arctic, an idea that continued decades after they were first denigrated by early European explorers.

Despite the less-than-enlightened approach of some fashion imagery, dramatic location shoots became a mainstay of Vogue magazine from 1963 to 1971, when Diana Vreeland was its editor-in-chief. Dynamic and highly creative, Vreeland consistently pushed the limits of fashion styling and photography throughout her decades-long career. She was among the first editors to oversee location shoots around the world while an editor at Harper’s Bazaar during World War II. By the time she arrived at Vogue, Vreeland not only expanded the scope of travel to exotic locations, she amped up the glamour quotient and sense of daring.

Michael Goitia bio imageMichael Goitia is The Museum at FIT’s senior exhibition manager. He is the person responsible for building the exhibition sets and bringing the exhibition designer’s vision to life. Expedition: Fashion From the Extreme features a particularly dramatic set, and Mike sat down with us to talk about building it and other exhibitions at the museum.

1. Tell us about your job–what is an exhibition manager?
In the most uncomplicated terms, an exhibition manager is similar to the project manager at a construction site. As exhibition manager, I am responsible for making sure the exhibitions at MFIT are done on time and do not go over budget. The exhibition department at FIT consists of two factions: campus projects and exhibition production.

Gabrielle Lauricella is the campus projects coordinator; she is responsible for the interaction between The Museum at FIT and the school’s Art & Design department and faculty. Ryan Wolfe is our exhibition production coordinator; he is involved with the History Gallery and our large exhibitions in the main gallery, where Expedition is on view.

I work with Ryan and Gabrielle to create production schedules for the exhibitions, and I confer with Fred Dennis, the museum’s senior curator of costume, to help plan the long-term exhibition calendar. I am responsible for the installer budget, finding vendors, sourcing materials, and general problem-solving. I hire the exhibition installers, who have a huge impact on how the department operates, even though they are part-time.

Some exhibition loans come with strict guidelines regarding handling and display; I work with the curatorial department to ensure that those guidelines are met. I also work very closely with the exhibition designer and curator. At the beginning of the production phase for each exhibition, we meet to discuss the subject of the show and then move on to the concept of what the show will look like. The designer will submit a plan, and then I figure out how the show will be built and I start to do research and design for elements in the show.


patricia-mears-headshotWritten 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.

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.

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.

Pierre Cardin, Cosmocorps collection, 1967. Photograph by Yoshi Takata / DR. Copyright Archives Pierre Cardin

Pierre Cardin, Cosmocorps collection, 1967. Photograph by Yoshi Takata / DR. Copyright Archives Pierre Cardin.

Elizabeth Way bio image-v2Elizabeth (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.

Paco Rabanne, wedding dress, circa 1968, France. Gift of Montgomery Ward. © The Museum at FIT

Paco Rabanne, wedding dress, circa 1968, France. Gift of Montgomery Ward.
© The Museum at FIT

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.