Photograph by John Cowan, 1964


With world politics and weather going to extremes, fashion is too in a new exhibit at the Museum at FIT.

“Expedition: Fashion From the Extreme” explores how clothing for extreme environments has come into fashion. A walk-through Wednesday afternoon with Patricia Mears, deputy director of The Museum at FIT, and Fred Dennis, the museum’s senior curator, involved a trip through four designated zones — Mountaineering, the Arctic, the Deep Sea and the Spaceship. Mears said of the 70-item show, “The whole process was to marry this idea as to how exploration, science and fashion come together.”

Before entering the main gallery, visitors first stop is an “Out of Africa”-worthy assortment of expedition war including the authentic like an Abercrombie & Fitch safari suit circa 1916 and the inspired Yves Saint Laurent safari-type tunics from the late Sixties. To give an authentic feel, the items are displayed in a diorama with a painting of the plains of the Serengeti. Before creating that, Mears and her team took a field trip to the American Museum of Natural History to get some pointers for the show that runs through Jan. 6. Styrofoam glaciers are also placed strategically in the space.

Joseph Altuzarra’s 2011 riff on the U.S. Army’s M48 parka and a 2013 one inspired by Inuit culture are also included. After noticing women including Jenna Lyons wearing them to runway shows the following season, Mears wondered, “How did we wind up wearing things that were made for survival?” and the impetus for “Expedition” was put in motion. Amidst a chunky turtleneck sweater and wolf fur pants by Madame Grès from the Sixties, and not far from wintery-inspired outerwear from Jean Paul Gaultier and Isaac Mizrahi, there are polar bear pants and other Arctic clothing worn by Matthew Henson during his 1909 North Pole trek. That century-old piece, as well as another — a funerary Siberian-made tunic — required extra care before each was installed in a glass case. Both items were coated in arsenic to protect fur from attacking animals. That said, conservators had to take near hazmat-like precautions setting them up in the gallery.

Darwin’s “Origin of Species” spurred extreme travel in the name of science, and Jules Verne’s “From the Earth to the Moon” and “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” really sparked public interest, Mears said. “I wish I could tell you I was thinking of the environment when I thought of this show but it sort of all coalesced together. It started with the fashion question and quickly became something about the larger idea of science and exploration and our natural world.”

Another area is dedicated to the puffer coat starting with a short Eddie Bauer one from 1935. When the company’s namesake nearly died of hypothermia, he developed the down-filled jacket, followed by versions for the U.S. military and record-breaking mountain climbers such as Jim Whittaker, the first American to ascend Mt. Everest. In 1937, Charles James developed his own version, a sculptural evening coat that is on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum. Not so far away, Norma Kamali’s 1978 sleeping bag is also on view, which Mears considers such an incredible and practical design that is still being worn today. “We really credit hip-hop artists with doing a lot to popularize the down jacket and even the term ‘puffer,’ we think comes from the hip-hop movement.”

In the Deep Sea section, Mears noted that Alexander McQueen was a scuba diver who had spent some time in the Maldives. That hobby as well as the bioluminescent animals that can only be seen thousands of feet under the water inspired a dress from the designer. In addition to a hot pink Neoprene Donna Karan dress, there is a 1989 Junko Koshino black Neoprene coat. There is also a display of Thom Browne’s scuba-esque pieces.

The main attraction — a spaceship structure in the center of the gallery — showcases Space Age-inspired fashion from Hussein Chalayan, Paco Rabanne, Pierre Cardin, Jean-Marie Armand and the largely forgotten Michel Goma. The original space suits were dull-colored and Mylar was concealed between the brown fabrics, according to Mears, who added, “When they were trying to promote NASA and the astronauts going to the moon, they actually painted the uniforms silver to make them more high-tech.”

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