When the average dresser is looking for a little inspiration to liven up next weekend’s outfit, they don’t generally go tramping through the annals of history to find it. But a Fall 2012 exhibit at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History suggested that there might be some merit in doing just that.
“Fashion and the Field Museum: Maria Pinto” occupied a single room on the first floor of the Museum, tucked into a corner across from Sue, the largest T-Rex skeleton in the world. Odd juxtapositions didn’t end with the proximity of a fashion display to dinosaur bones, though. The exhibit itself consisted of historic articles of clothing from the Museum’s collection, which were selected by Chicago-based fashion designer Maria Pinto and displayed alongside contemporary pieces from Pinto’s latest collection. The presentation served to highlight the visual connections between the ancient and modern: overlapping scale-like surfaces tied a sequined Pinto evening blouse and an old chain-mail armguard together, while another pairing featured a layered Pinto dress next to a similarly-constructed Inuit raincoat made of animal intestines sewed to one another in loops.
The comparison of modern and ancient was pivotal to the exhibit’s success, in that it helped render the historical pieces more accessible than when they’re hung elsewhere in the building. Their propinquity to clothing that the modern viewer could imagine wearing helped make the Museum pieces feel more immediate, even when they were kept behind glass or displayed without the aid of a mannequin to lend them human form.
Historian Christopher Breward remarked in a 2007 article in the Journal of Contemporary History that the scholarly world has begun to view the formerly scoffed-at study of fashion as a “fitting conduit for the consideration of a range of historical questions relating to social change, technological development and cultural identity.” While this shift towards viewing fashion as a valid subject for serious scholarship represents a victory in many ways, it can also obscure the commonalities between modern and ancient wearers of fashion.
Since clothing serves a more obviously practical purpose than many other forms of visual art like sculpture or painting, it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking of it in primarily utilitarian terms. This especially applies to attire from the past. Historians tend to analyze every feature in terms of its usefulness, whether physical or otherwise, claiming, “This feathered collar served to appease the bird-god,” or “These bear claws were meant to make the wearer appear intimidating.”
This tendency was effectively challenged by the Maria Pinto exhibit, whether intentionally or not. When seen in conjunction with the modern, it was easier for the viewer to look at the ancient and realize that some of the same desires that motivate us today probably motivated the wearers of those items as well: the desire to protect the body from the elements and cover parts of the body that need special modesty, yes, but also the desire to look and feel beautiful, the desire to distinguish oneself from others, the desire to express oneself through outward adornment.
Overall, “Fashion and the Field Museum: Maria Pinto” represented a unique concept that helped to break down artificial distinctions between our ancestors’ raison d’habiller and our own.
Breward, Christopher. “The Politics of Fashion: The Politics of Fashion Studies,” Journal of Contemporary History 42 (2007): 673–681. doi: 10.1177/0022009407082154.