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Suzy Menkes on Glamour That Came in From the Cold

An icy fashion shoot by John Cowan for Vogue, November 1964, reproduced in Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme (Thames & Hudson) by Patricia Mears et al, which accompanies the exhibition at The Museum at FIT in New York. The John Cowan Archive

So the temperature in New York has risen to minus eight degrees? Phew! After breaking a few records – including that for the entire 20th century – next weekend is expected to drop further to a shivering minus 16 degrees (not even counting the wind chill).

A polyester down-filled parka by Demna Gvasalia for Balenciaga, Fall 2016. Right, just seen: A Junya Watanabe ensemble for Comme des Garçons, Fall 2004. Courtesy of Natasha Cowan

But I could have predicted that back in September, when, gasping from the heat, I dashed into “Expedition: Fashion From the Extreme” at The Museum at FIT (the Fashion Institute of Technology). There were outfits worn by Arctic explorers who reached the North Pole in 1909, while a century later Chanel launched a furry collection for Fall 2010 that Karl Lagerfeld set against massive glaciers imported from Sweden.

From left: Tweed and faux fur suit by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, Fall 2010; man’s faux fur ensemble by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, Autumn/Winter 2010. Both lent by Chanel Patrimoine Collection, Paris. Courtesy of the museum at FIT

No need for that extra ice right now, but currently it might be difficult to slip through the snow to see the New York exhibition in its final week.

A Charles James evening jacket resembling an eiderdown, October 1938, by Horst P Horst.

Fashion continues its eerie ability to predict the future. This is nothing new, but can be traced back at least a century, as Polar exploration was mirrored in the clothing invented for protection.

One of explorer Roald Amundsen’s favourite portraits of himself, which appeared in his published account The South Pole, photographed near Bunnefjorden, Norway, March 1909, by Anders Beer Wilse. The image is reproduced in the catalogue that accompanies the FIT show, Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme. Anders Beer Wilse/National Library of Norway

Even for the lucky few spending January on a tropical isle today, the Thames & Hudson book that accompanies the FIT show gives much food for thought: how clothes may be born from necessity but are swiftly followed by fashion; and how Vogue itself interpreted the worldwide fascination with climate extremes as glamour that came in from the cold. Artist George Lepape’s illustration of a woman in white fur, with blood-red undergarments and stabbing a polar bear, is chilling in every sense.

A George Lepape cover illustration for Vogue, August 1917. The Condé Nast Archive

The heroic era of Polar exploration at the turn of the 20th century was the origin of the parkas and puffer coats that dominate today’s winter wardrobe. And I believe Patricia Mears, the museum’s co-curator and Deputy Director, when she says that this is the first museum study to address the relationship between survival wear and high fashion. She was inspired by designer Joseph Altuzarra’s play on the mid-century military parka. But it might equally have been Norma Kamali’s 1973 Sleeping-Bag Coat, still on offer on-line today; or Moncler’s 1952 mountain wear that went on to be a hip-hop uniform and bring cool to its high fashion, down-feather puffer coats.

Norma Kamali’s “Sleeping Bag Coat”, circa 1977, versions of which are still in production. Gift of Linda Tain. The museum at FIT

Or the curator might have gone back even earlier to the strangely erotic and exotic images of the late-19th and early-20th-century French actress Sarah Bernhardt, dressed first in a fashion portrait beside a man in deep sea diving gear, and then alone in “Ocean Empress” clothing.

From left: Thom Browne singlet and surfboard; Thom Browne man’s suit; Thom Browne oversized wetsuit ensemble; Thom Browne trompe l’oeil wetsuit – all Spring/Summer 2017 and all lent by Thom Browne. Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, sequin jacket, Spring/Summer 1991. Ohne Titel, neoprene bodysuit, Spring/Summer 2015; Ohne Titel fur, leather, and faux fur coat, Autumn/Winter 2012; and Ohne Titel knit and leather boots, Autumn/Winter 2016. All gifts of Ohne Titel. The museum at FIT

Two subjects from the extremes of dressing are skated over. First, the focus entirely on the sporty male: for example, The Explorer’s Club, founded in Manhattan in 1904, which would not let women in until 1981; and NASA’s famous Apollo Moon landings, which astronaut Neil Armstrong proclaimed as “One small step for a Man; one giant leap for mankind”.

Left: The Pierre Cardin “Dynel (Cardine)” dress with egg-carton effect, 1968. Gift of Lauren Bacall. Right: A neoprene and nylon dress by DKNY, 1994. Gift of DKNY. The museum at FIT

The other awkward – but not sexist – subject is fur. The materials that might have seemed natural for the Inuit of Greenland are increasingly questioned today, when there are other high-tech materials – or even the familiar neoprene – to replace fur in dangerously cold and blustery weather. Animal skins were often chosen for their natural patterns, but when Rick Owens designed for Revillon, he revelled in the raw to create high-fashion furs.

Three Inuit women in fur and skin parkas, Selawik, Alaska, circa 1929. Photograph by Edward Curtis

Is bringing clothing from the extreme to the elegant a normal process? Magazine covers have offered Björk, the Icelandic singer, in a frozen landscape wearing Jean Paul Gaultier in 1994; while Grace Coddington worked with photographer Arthur Elgort on an outfit of layered skins by Yohji Yamamoto for US Vogue’s September issue in 2000.

A fur-trimmed Yohji Yamamoto ensemble for Autumn/Winter 2000 on display at Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme

Given the relatively small display area at FIT, the book does better than the exhibition at showing the ingenuity and originality of clothes for extreme weather conditions. And the images prove that we can still project beauty, even with legs encased in hairy hose, body wrapped in puffer jacket, and head held high in a furry hood.

An après-ski ensemble by Madame Grès, photographed by Irving Penn for Vogue, September 1969

From left: Puffer coat by Jean Paul Gaultier, “Le Grand Voyage” collection, Autumn/Winter 1994. Lent by Dorothea Mink; Isaac Mizrahi “Lumberjack ball gown” ensemble, Fall 1994. Lent by Isaac Mizrahi; (in case) Siberian funerary coat, c. 1900. Lent by American Museum of Natural History; Yohji Yamamoto coat and skirt, dress and fur collar, and evening dress, all Yohji Yamamoto Fall 2000

A Jean Paul Gaultier coat, Fall 1994. Lent by Dorothea Mink

A Joseph Altuzarra parka and dress, Fall 2012. Lent by Altuzarra

White leather boots by André Courrèges, 1965. Gift of Sally Cary Iselin

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