Adventures in Fashion

· Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme at the Museum at FIT ·

Would you have guessed that the 1920s silhouette on the far left was by Abercrombie & Fitch? I had to verify the description at least twice before it registered.

Did you know that Abercrombie & Fitch actually started out as a safari outfitter? Nor did I until I visited the Museum at FIT’s Fashion from the Extreme where the first display showed several different safari-inspired ensembles from the last one hundred years. I had to do a double take as the oldest set was by Abercrombie & Fitch.

Of course, I remember the safari-esque khaki theme Abercrombie had back in the early ‘00s, but I had no idea it came from a true legacy. And perhaps that was one of the things I took away from Fashion from the Extreme: how different high street brands actually got their start in fashioning for extreme conditions. Because Abercrombie was not the only non-designer label and design featured in the exhibition that reveals a truly adventurous background.

Though down jackets are popular today, back before the 1930s, they were nowhere to be found in the US. That was until a sports outfitter named Eddie Bauer almost died of hypothermia. Already the owner of a popular sporting goods brand in the Pacific Northwest, Bauer exploded his influence across the country. Diamond quilted jackets were synonymous with Eddie Bauer and his name was made. Eddie Bauer is still one of the first places adventurers look to for sporting wear.

But the exhibition isn’t just about utilitarian designs. It mostly focuses on how these elements of utilitarian designs find their way into high fashion. Split into different extreme climates, it displays the utilitarian clothes next to fashionable ones. The climates include safari as mentioned, the Arctic, deep sea, and even space. Space is perhaps the one we already had an idea of how it was played out in fashion due to the popularity of “space age” designs by Courrèges, Cardin, and the like in the 1960s. It is in the unexpected ways the other climates played into high fashion where this exhibition excels.

Two SS10 Alexander McQueen dresses featuring prints inspired by deep sea diving in the Maldives

Take for instance the deep sea. There are dresses and men’s suits made out of neoprene, a ‘90s Chanel suit that took inspiration from a wetsuit, and a surfboard designed by Thom Browne. But there are also two Alexander McQueen dresses with prints he designed after scuba diving in the Maldives. In this way, the exhibition demonstrates how extremes can have both literal and artful interpretations in fashion.

Perhaps one of my favorite pieces was a completely unexpected jacket from Charles James. Unexpected in that it was a silk puffer jacket with an intricate quilted design. Elegant in a silky white, it diverged both from the elegant gowns James was known for and the Eddie Bauer designs it was inspired by. Structural with dramatic shoulder pads, it almost seems more Balenciaga. Perhaps it’s no wonder, then, that nearly 80 years later, Demna Gvasalia produced his own take on the couture puffer jacket for Balenciaga.

It is in these sorts of objects that I think the strongest theme of the exhibition comes through. Not just that fashion is inspired by trends in extreme expeditions* but that it actually takes from those utilitarian clothes worn in those extremes. Today, we tend to assume that it’s the utilitarian clothing that takes from fashion to make it more appealing to the masses, but this exhibition proves that the opposite is true, as well.

And in the end, fashion is its own adventure, isn’t it?

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Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme is on display at the Museum at FIT in New York until 6 January 2018.

*Another interesting aspect of the exhibition that I didn’t touch on is these trends in extreme expeditions. Not only did the exhibition break it into the different extreme climes, it subtly charted the history demonstrating how just like fashion, expeditions have trends, too.

** The exhibition fit very well with Force of Nature and was displayed alongside it at the Museum at FIT until recently.

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