The most important factor for an explorer on an expedition is having the right clothing and gear.  It can make the difference between life and death. The early pioneers of extreme expeditions never imagined their work gear would become everyday fashion but a hundred years later designers are cashing in on puffer coats, parkas, and ski boots.

I grew up in NYC where everyone has a style of their own and fabulous fashion inspiration is found on every street.  When I ventured into the world of adventure expeditions back in the 1990s I was very disappointed to find that my choices in clothing and gear were either black or bubblegum pink!  I opted for the sleek and thinning black ensembles but I still had issues with sizes and cuts as most of the scuba, trekking, hiking gear was designed for men and fairly boxy.

The adventure travel industry has grown rapidly in the past ten years thanks to women who are out in the world exploring. According to the US Outdoor Industry association, “Women make up 51 percent of outdoor consumers in the $887 billion US outdoor recreation industry.  Women spend $334 annually on outdoor apparel, footwear, equipment and electronics as compared to men who spend an average of $599.”

Designers have made a huge impact in the fashion, design and performance of outdoor clothing and gear which allows the modern day adventure woman to be a comfortable fashionista on a mountain top, underwater and even hanging from a rock wall.

The worlds of fashion and exploration share many parallels, fashion is about taking risks, being bold, visionary and having the confidence to put out it out there. Explorers are very similar in their attitude, they understand working outside of their comfort zone, are bold, daring and seek to find new ways to push boundaries.

The Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC curated a beautiful and enlightening exhibit about the history of fashion and expeditions. The exhibit titled “Expedition, Fashion from the Extreme” ran from September 2017- January 2018 and was met with great reviews. The exhibit included polar, sea, space and mountain climbing gear and clothing dating back to the turn of the 20th Century.

The Deputy Director, Patricia Mears states that the inspiration to create the exhibit was to showcase and “address the relationship between these two incongruent types of garments — survival wear and high fashion”

She goes on to say that “Exploration to the most remote places on earth relied on new technologies throughout the twentieth century. The first Europeans to successfully make inroads to the poles were equally indebted to the ancient sartorial traditions of indigenous Arctic peoples. Both of these extremes, the very new and the very old, formed the foundation of clothing design for explorers and decades later, the world of high fashion”.

“Expedition, Fashion from the Extreme” showcased designer garments that have been inspired by the actual working gear of explorers dating back to 20th century.  The various materials which included neoprene and mylar which continue to be used today. Chain mail steel which dates back to the Knights of king Arthur in the 12th century, is being used in modern day couture clothing and jewelry.

Pierre Cardin, dress, wool crepe and polished steel plates, 1968, Paris. The Museum at FIT. Gift of Ms. Liz Bader

The exhibit may be gone but not forgotten thanks to a beautiful book published by Thames and Hudson. It is an exquisite coffee table book filled with over 200 pages of archival photographs of great explorers, runway fashion and spans the history and traditions of polar, space and deep sea expeditions.  It is a great resource of information for women who care about style and love adventure.

Women taking risks rely on technology, comfort and safety.  The fit, cut and performance of garments are important to us yet we also want to look good. I say there is no shame in being vain when you are out in the elements.

CD Fram museum

My first polar ice diving experience was not only cold but made more difficult and uncomfortable by the generically sized men’s drysuit which was the only option available.  I loved the diving and hated the gear. Thanks to the drysuit manufacturer DUI (Diving Unlimited International) I worked with them on their first design prototype of a women’s drysuit. The new suits feature colors and designs along with styles and features that women appreciate.

I have spent 20 years in extreme conditions and remote regions of the world and understand how gear and clothing directly affect performance and comfort.  Apparel designers have become aware of the needs of active women and how to design for them.  Outdoor fabrics  have become softer, clothing cuts have been tailored to a woman’s proportions with color, design and technology. These changes incorporated into clothing contributes to the excitement for women who don’t have to compromise on style.

Sunglasses, plastic, spring/summer 1965, Paris
The Museum at FIT. Gift of Abel Rapp

The Arctic Inuit wear fur for warmth and I respect that it is a centuries old tradition of hunting and using every part of the animal for food, warmth and shelter.  They do not wear fur for style, theirs is a practical solution for their way of life.

Three Inuit women in fur and skin parkas, Selawik, Alaska, circa 1929. Photograph by Edward Curtis

There are also many designers who work with fabrics and technology that are anti fur and vegan. Stella McCartney is one such designer who will not work with fur and is very much against animal cruelty. Her collections are eco-friendly, socially responsible and promote sustainability awareness.

Joseph Altuzarra, fall/winter 2012. Courtesy ALTUZARRA

Technology provides us with options that are as warm and efficient as fur goods are to the Inuit in the polar regions.

Fashion and technology are constantly evolving and I imagine the future generations of designers and inventors are already in prototype mode for new adventure outfits. I wonder if we will each have personal cocoons with the ability to heat and cool at the touch of a button or eye wink?

Whatever the future holds I thank all female adventure pioneers who accomplished great things in mens clothing!