5:25 PM EDT, September 19, 2012
There's even a pair of (very) hot pants on display that look like they could be worn Saturday night at (fill in the name of whatever Chicago club is "happening" these days).
Here's the catch to the shorts, though. They're made of sealskin. They're adorned, just so, with beads. They were constructed in Greenland, by an artisan of the Inuit Angmagssalik culture, for a woman who would likely never come within 1,200 miles of Studio 54.
And they're on display at the museum because Chicago fashion designer Maria Pinto plucked them from the Field's vast backstage area, where something over a million anthropological artifacts wait patiently for a chance in the light, however dim it may end up being.
"There are a lot of fur pants that are actually in the (Field) collection," said Pinto, who is best known as a favorite designer of first lady Michelle Obama. "But I saw the shorts and thought, 'People need to see this.' Every generation of designers think we're cutting edge, and we invented it. The reality is, if you cut through history, sad to say, everything's been done."
Well, maybe not quite everything. "Fashion and the Field Museum Collection: Maria Pinto" is an innovative response to a couple of provocative questions: How do you do something new with a museum exhibition? How do you find coherent ways to showcase artifacts across time and place, instead of in the usual, mono-cultural manner?
Another question at the root of the show: "How do you bring the collections out and stay true to what anthropology is today?" asked Alaka Wali, the Field's curator of North American anthropology, who co-curated the show with Pinto.
"It was a great opportunity to break a lot of boundaries," Pinto said this week, after the exhibit officially began its nine-month run. "I really wanted those pieces to be viewed. I wanted the viewer to think about the pieces, as opposed to being told what the piece was all about."
So, yes, the exhibit is cross-cultural, reaching into Paraguay for a fringed leather waistband and West Africa for a crocodile-skin shirt, and then juxtaposing those and 23 other Field pieces with eight outfits designed by Pinto — one, a pants-and-jacket ensemble, designed especially for the show.
But the show also breaks rules by having almost no signage. So if you must know the provenance of that simply amazing translucent raincoat, made of seal intestine stitched for more than utilitarian reasons with red thread, then you can look at a key on the wall, or the video screen at the entrance that presents a slideshow of the pieces.
There, you would learn, for instance, that Pinto's newly designed slender shearling pants "nod to the fur shorts" and that her ensemble's color scheme derives from the exhibit's Chinese "male actor's headdress for theatrical opera," with its bright red, Seussian pompoms rimming a bejeweled crown.
Or, as Pinto and Wali intended, you can just think about the clothes as objects of art, evaluating them without names.
"In a great work of art, the artist isn't telling you what to look at," said Pinto. "It's there, and the artist isn't telling you what to take away from it."
Only the broadest of labels exist in the gallery: "Banding. Intestines. Structure," for instance, and the call-and-response of "Sequins? Armor!"
"To us this is an art installation," said Janet Hong, the Field's project manager for exhibitions. "We wanted people to be a little unsure of what they were looking at."
And to be pleased with the price, apparently: There's no upcharge for this one. It's part of the regular Field admission. If you'd like to see a version of the show for even less money and effort, you can view the same slideshow that's part of the exhibit at mariapinto.fieldmuseum.org.
"Fashion and the Field Museum Collection" began in Pinto's presentation of something similar, but in miniature, to the museum's Women's Board in 2010. That talk, by all accounts, went well, and it was decided to try it on a public scale.
Beginning last fall, she remembered, Pinto visited Field archives 10 or more times, selecting some 100 objects for possible inclusion.
Some were cut because, as sacred objects to their creators, the fashion-show context would be disrespectful. Some were just too obvious.
Pinto ended up with, arguably, only one piece of clothing, a Mongolian "deel," or brocaded tunic, that subscribes to traditional Western notions of pretty garmentry.
Yet even this one has a twist that might make it, too, appropriate to a nightclub. Although the look is what we would think of as feminine, it could be worn, the slideshow tells us, by women or men.
'Fashion and the Field Museum Collection: Maria Pinto'
When: Through June 16
Where: Field Museum, 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive
Tickets: Included in basic admission, $15, $10 children; 312-992-9410 or fieldmuseum.org
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