Timeless Fashion at Field Museum Exhibit

By Alex Stedman

Fashion may be fleeting, but timelessness is the theme of “Fashion and The Field Museum Collection: Maria Pinto,” in which pieces by Chicago-based designer Maria Pinto are juxtaposed with unusual artifacts, such as a crocodile-skin vest, a raincoat made of seal intestines and a monkey

fur necklace.

The exhibit opened to the public Sept. 14 and was curated by Pinto, a favorite designer of Michelle Obama’s, and Alaka Wali, the museum’s curator of North American Anthropology. Pinto used pieces from her past collections and created one ensemble exclusively for the exhibit.

The project has been a year in the making, which is a fairly short time frame for creating an exhibit, according to Janet Hong, project manager for Exhibitions at the Field Museum.

“We spent days, weeks really, going through the vast underground city of stored artifacts at the museum,” Hong said.

Pinto and Wali started their working relationship during a 2010 women’s luncheon program at the museum.

Pinto had never curated a historical exhibit, and Wali said the museum had never done a fashion exhibit of this sort. Hong said some of the objects on display haven’t been showcased since the World’s Fair of 1893, which persuaded the museum to invite Pinto to offer a fresh perspective on the artifacts.

“I think people will walk through the rest of the museum and see objects with a different eye,” Wali said. “They’re not going to look at it as some old thing.”

Though Pinto said that she wasn’t inspired by any particular period or pattern, armor was one theme that did emerge, as illustrated by a crocodile-skin armor vest from the Republic of Cameroon in Africa and a shield made from hippo skin from Ethiopia.

“Whatever we put on our body has a tendency, in my mind, to be a form of armor,” Pinto said. “Whether you’re putting on a suit to go to an office meeting or a dress to go on a date, you’re putting on something that protects you.”

“Alaka,” Pinto’s ensemble created specifically for the exhibit, was named after Wali, who said she was extremely honored by the gesture. Pinto said the piece was influenced by the different historical aspects of the gallery. For example, the sequined wristlet on the ensemble was inspired by ancient Japanese gauntlets, also reminiscent of armor.

Pinto said she was particularly fascinated by how those who made the artifacts used materials available to them. She said she had access to kangaroo and many other resources for her work, but the original makers had to use what was available, like teeth, tusks and monkey hair.

Pinto said the aesthetics and functionality of the historical items were taken into account when pairing them with her own designs. For instance, a 100-year-old raincoat made of seal intestines, which Hong described as “gorgeous” and Pinto said she would wear “in a heartbeat,” was paired with the black taffeta “Tema” dress from Pinto’s  Spring 2010 collection because of their similar textures.

“[The artifacts] may be ancient in the sense that they were made a while ago, but as far as their aesthetic sensibility, they’re timeless,” Wali said.

This timelessness is reflected in how the human body is presented throughout history. Hong used the example of a traditional Mongolian “deel,” a sort of caftan that envelops the body and is worn by both men and women for ceremonial purposes.

“It’s very sexy in its own way to [Pinto] because it covers a lot of your body, but it accentuates a lot of your body,” Hong said.

Pinto paired the deel with the much more revealing “Kayla” halter dress from a 2009 collection to raise the question of what makes a garment feminine.

Pinto explained that the difference in the designs comes from how our lifestyles have changed, how technology has advanced, how materials are made and what humans

now require.

Hong said the museum chose not to use text in the exhibition so visitors could fully appreciate the pieces’ aesthetic qualities.

Hong said she hopes to do more fashion exhibitions to showcase the museum’s extensive collection in a creative way, but Wali said she doesn’t think fashion will play a large part in the museum’s

future endeavors.

Wali hopes to have more exhibitions with an artist’s perspective, which is a direction Pinto said she could see herself being a part of. She clarified that she doesn’t believe in doing the same project twice, however.

“As designers, we’re always thinking that we’re inventing something new,” Pinto said. “But in reality, if you really study history, it seems like almost everything’s been done.”

The exhibit is included with general admission at the Field Museum and will run from Sept. 14 through June 16, 2013.