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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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