In a current show at Chicago’s Field Museum, fashion designer Maria Pinto indulges her inner anthropologist. Fashion and the Field Museum Collection—Maria Pinto (running through June 16, 2013) explores the universal world of design by mixing clothing from the museum’s collection hand-selected by Pinto with some of her own past designs. Included in the show is an original design by Pinto, inspired by the spirit of the Field’s collection.
Pinto is probably best known for dressing Michelle Obama for years. But she has long harbored a harder, more anthropological edge. It may not have been apparent to her fans who sought her out for stylishly understated, ladylike clothes, but tribal design has always been one of Pinto’s inspirations.
The results at the Field Museum show are thought provoking and often startling—for example, the juxtaposition of a translucent Inuit raincoat made of seal intestines paired with Pinto’s “Tema” dress from her spring 2010 collection. Other museum items that Pinto has selected to pair with her own work include a parka made of bird skins, a necklace of woven monkey fur, and an 18th-century Chinese theatrical headdress. All of the items show meticulous craftsmanship, as do Pinto’s own designs.
Here, Pinto discusses the show and how fashion is where you find it.
Q: How did the collaboration happen?
A: About two years ago, I did a presentation at their Women’s Board, where I would comment on eight pieces of design from the Field’s collection. From the beginning—picking out the objects for that board presentation—I was intrigued with items made out of unexpected materials. So that became the thread that wove the choices together.
Q: So this show grew out of that smaller presentation?
A: Yes. Afterwards, the Field Museum very generously offered to expand the idea to a public exhibit. My co-curator was Alaka Wali, a curator of the anthropology department there. She has a great sensibility for taking pieces out of their historical context or what, in museum terms, would be a historically acceptable framework. That allows the objects to be seen in a different way. Sara Lee came on board as a sponsor and so, last summer, I began to go through the collection and choose pieces.
Q: That sounds like a daunting task.
A: Absolutely. There are over one million pieces in their storage spaces and there are still thousands I’m intrigued by. But quickly the pieces for this show started to evolve in terms of the psychology of what we put on our bodies. There are some pieces of actual armor included. I always feel like what we put on our bodies is a form of armor; there is the functional protection aspect, but also there is the message we’re conveying.
Q: How did you narrow your choices?
A: It was so hard, but my initial reaction carries a lot of weight. Something about the silhouette, the texture, the significance behind an object. I went with what immediately grabbed my attention. The materials used are so unusual—beetles or teeth, for example—but you don’t see it right away. They are just these gorgeous objects and then slowly, as you study them, the actual material is revealed to you.
That’s fascinating to me. As a designer, I have the world as my laboratory. Anything I want, I can source it and use it. For these people, though, these were the resources they had to use, like making a skirt made out of crocodile skin. Their options were limited and yet they made beautiful, functional items. It takes my breath away.
Q: In the past, some of your collections showed an anthropological influence?
A: I was particularly inspired by the people of the Omo Valley of Ethiopia, which is a crossroads for many different ethnicities. What spoke to me about them, just as various items in this show spoke to me, was the beautiful aesthetic of the people and how they achieved decorative aspects. In the past, I’ve been inspired to use laser-cut leathers or fur or feathers in unusual ways.
Q: And you created one new outfit to go with a Chinese headpiece?
A: The headdress is so theatrical—literally, it was part of a theater costume. I loved the range of colors on it. For my outfit, I have a crazy red fur collar with a belt around it and shearling jeans, where the fur has been shaved to a flat surface and applied to a stretch background. So, in the middle of all this rarified wonder, I’ve made a very unusual version of an everyday item: a pair of stretch jeans.