An “Extreme Turn”? Some Thoughts on Material Culture, Exploration, and Interdisciplinary Directions

By Contributing Writer Sarah Pickman

In 1848 Peter Halkett, a lieutenant in the British Royal Navy, published his designs for a most curious invention. Halkett was interested in the numerous exploratory expeditions the Navy had sent to the Canadian Arctic during the previous few decades. In particular, he’d learned that British explorers desired small boats for expeditions that were lightweight and could be carried overland when not in use. Halkett’s proposed solution, illustrated in a series of published engravings, was the “Boat-Cloak or Cloak-Boat,” an inflatable craft made of waterproof rubberized cloth – with a stylish windowpane check pattern, it might be added. Deflated, the boat could be worn as an outer cloak. When confronted with a body of water, the wearer could simply take off the cloak and inflate it. While Halkett’s craft was designed for polar explorers and not urban dandies, the figure in his illustrations wearing the deflated boat cuts a dashing silhouette for an 1840s London gentleman. Since Halkett assumed his wearers would be carrying walking sticks and umbrellas, he proposed that these fashionable accessories be used as shafts for boat paddles and sails, respectively.


Images from Boat-Cloak or Cloak-Boat, Constructed of MacIntosh India-rubber Cloth, Umbrella-sail, Bellows, &c. Also, an Inflated Indiarubber Cloth-boat for Two Paddlers. Invented by Lieutenant Peter Halkett, R.N., 1848. Image reproductions from National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

While the Navy never adopted Halkett’s design for general use, the “Boat-Cloak” was an early example of a solution to challenges posed by Western exploratory voyages in extreme environments that also had an eye towards style. This melding of utilitarian expedition gear and high design is the subject of the exhibition Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme, now on view at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (MFIT) in New York. The exhibition, curated by MFIT’s deputy director Patricia Mears, is the first major study to address the work of high fashion designers inspired by Western exploration, particularly by expeditions of the last two centuries. It’s organized around five types of “extreme environments” that have been the subject of exploratory interest: polar, deep sea, outer space, mountains, and savannah/grasslands. Within each of the five environments, the exhibition draws on MFIT’s rich holdings and several unique loans, such as an Inuit-made fur ensemble worn by Matthew Henson, to juxtapose the work of twentieth and twenty-first century fashion designers with expedition garments that inspired them. For example, in the mountaineering section visitors can view original Eddie Bauer down-filled jackets and pants, made for high-altitude mountaineering in the 1930s, with iconic high fashion “puffer coats” by Charles James (1937), Norma Kamali (1978’s famous “sleeping bag coat”), and Joseph Altuzarra (2011) that were inspired by utilitarian down-filled outerwear. The interplay between designer, utilitarian, and in the polar section, indigenous-made, garments not only blurs the lines between categories like “fashionable” and “functional,” but asks visitors to consider the creative ways humans respond to extreme environments, or their perceptions of such environments, and their impact on them.



Norma Kamali “sleeping bag” coat, c. 1977, Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technolgy. Gift of Linda Tain.

I was fortunate to be able to contribute an essay to the exhibition catalogue on the role of dress in polar exploration at the turn of the twentieth century. As someone interested in the material culture of exploration, especially clothing, it was gratifying to see Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme come to fruition, since both exhibition and catalogue (and also a symposium on the topic of “Fashion, Science, and Exploration,” organized in conjunction with the exhibition) are contributions from fashion scholarship to the growing body of work in the humanities on humans and the “extreme environment.”

In the last two decades, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of academic books on aspects of exploratory history, particularly European and Euro-American exploration from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. Ten years ago in an essay for History Compass, Dane Kennedy identified two main strands of inquiry in this area: one encompassing “the institutional, social, and intellectual forces…that inspired the exploration of other lands and oversaw its operations,” and the other addressing the “cultural encounter between explorers and indigenous peoples.” Kennedy himself has been a standard-bearer for such work, along with Michael F. Robinson, Felix Driver, Michael Bravo, Beau Riffenburgh, Helen Rozwadowski, Lisa Bloom, Johannes Fabian, and D. Graham Burnett, to name just a few. To the areas Kennedy identified we can now add studies of textual and visual media produced by expeditions; historiography of explorers; material tools of exploration; work on race and gender in exploration; and broad global surveys of exploration. This is to say nothing of the rich bodies of writing across the humanities with ties to exploration: work from history of science on scientific fieldwork and the role of local informants or go-betweens; studies of representations of landscape from art historians; work across disciplines on genealogies of natural history collecting and scientific museums. And the list goes on.

Along with the “cultural encounter between explorers and indigenous peoples” Kennedy described, “exploration” as a category provides a space for thinking through different human encounters with, and approaches to, environments. In this space, we might dovetail the growing body of work on exploration to new scholarship from history of science on the history of physiology in extreme environments. In this category we can include recent and forthcoming work from Rebecca M. Herzig, Sarah W. Tracy, Philip Clements, Matthew Wiseman, Matthew Farish, David P. D. Munns, and Vanessa Heggie, whose article “Why Isn’t Exploration a Science?” is a succinct entry to thinking about knowledge produced in the context of exploratory expeditions. These studies (by no means an exhaustive list) of European and Euro-American actors examining bodies in extreme environments – largely in the polar regions, on mountains, and in outer space – might be seen in conversation with scholarship on histories of tropical medicine, but in different geographic contexts.

Yet an examination of science in extreme environments specifically also provides a bridge between the “heroic” exploratory voyages of the long nineteenth century and the development of modern field-based sciences. It also allows us to think through how we, as humanities scholars, use the categories of “extreme” and “normal.” In other disciplines these terms are fairly well defined. In biology, for example, “extreme environment” is a category that has been in widespread use since the 1950s. Textbooks note that it describes places hostile to all forms of organic life save for some very highly adapted microorganisms. These places range from the rocky deserts of Antarctica, to extraordinarily alkaline lakes, to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest place in the world’s oceans. In 1974, R. D. MacElroy introduced the term “extremophile” in an article in the journal Biosystems as a grouping for these lifeforms.

But the history of the category of “extreme environment” as it pertains to human life has less to do with common inherent features of those environments and more to do with the kinds of historical actors interested in them. As Vanessa Heggie discusses in her forthcoming book Higher and Colder: A History of Extreme Physiology, by the first half of the twentieth century some field physiologists were beginning to group the Arctic, Antarctica, and high-altitude mountain ranges together. They often shared research and advice for traveling through these areas. Occasionally seasoned mountaineers took part in polar expeditions, and vice versa. But as Heggie notes, “There is an artificiality to these connections, since they are inventions of the human mind rather than necessarily reflecting an objective ‘natural’ relationship between very different geographical regions…So what really connects these environments is human beings – their motivations and specific interests.” “Specific interests,” in this case, referred to the performance of what Heggie calls “temperate-climate bodies” in these places. When indigenous populations existed in these places, nineteenth-century European and Euro-American explorers usually ignored them or employed them as guides but later downplayed their contributions to expeditions. Over the course of the twentieth century, some American and British physiologists were increasingly interested in isolating what they assumed must be innate biological features that allowed the indigenous inhabitants of these regions to thrive, but often with the goal of using this information to select soldiers for mountain or polar combat. (The U.S. military’s Arctic, Desert, and Tropic Information Center, established in 1942, was an example of grouping disparate environments together based on their challenges to conventional Western warfare).

While “extreme environment” may be a twentieth-century actors’ category, we can find earlier antecedents for grouping environments together in this way. By the late nineteenth century, there were numerous organizations in Europe and the United States that supported exploration, such as the Royal Geographical Society in Britain and the Explorers Club in the U.S., and their ranks were filled with members interested in a wide range of geographic settings, from the rainforests of Central Africa to the icy Arctic Ocean. Though they may not have used the term “extreme,” the members of these clubs arguably created a social space in which these disparate places could be talked about in the same breath. These were locations that tantalized Western explorers as “prizes” to be claimed via expeditions, while at the same time (or because) their environmental conditions resisted agriculture-based settler colonialism. Arguably, one can find the roots of the “extreme environment” even earlier in the “sublime environment” of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which overwhelmed the viewer and provoked awe and terror at nature’s grandeur – but was also predicated on Western ways of seeing and understanding.

In short, the historical study of the human body in the extreme environment – considering exploration, field science, lab-based physiology, recreation, anthropology, travel and other related areas – is a fruitful space for scholars, and a place with the potential for productive, interdisciplinary work across the humanities and a way to reach beyond to the sciences. It poses questions for historical research: How did this “extreme” grouping work for historical actors, and how did they conceptualize the “normal” body in opposition to one transformed by harsh environments? How does extreme field science’s roots in heroic exploration inform the work of current scientists, such as those published in journals like Journal of Human Performance in Extreme Environments and Extreme Physiology and Medicine? Of all of the ways of pursuing knowledge, why did certain actors choose paths not in spite of their high risk for bodily harm or death, but because of it; as Michael F. Robinson has written, research where “Danger is not the cost of admission, but the feature attraction”? Most fundamentally, who sets the terms for which environments are considered extreme, particularly in places with indigenous populations? What’s at stake when one’s home region is the extreme to someone else’s normal, when human populations are considered to be biological extremophiles? It is important that we fully historicize our definitions of “normal” and “extreme” in the contexts of the body and the environment, especially at a time when anthropogenic climate change, biohacking, post-humanism, and commercial space travel – not to mention terrestrial “adventure tourism” – have the potential to shift them. The body of recent historical research cited here can provide a way to tackle these questions. Does this research constitute the cusp of an “extreme turn”? Possibly. But even if it is too soon to call it a “turn,” it is already a rich pool for study, and with work currently being undertaken by emerging scholars, a pool that is not likely to dry up soon.

I’d like to suggest that museums have a critical role to play in this ongoing conversation about the extreme, as spaces to engage not just with texts, but also with objects, which represent the tangible ways humans mediate bodily experience of environments. It’s notable that organizations like the Royal Geographical Society or the Arctic, Desert, and Tropic Information Center often served as clearinghouses for information about appropriate gear for explorers and soldiers headed to particular places. As Dehlia Hannah and Cynthia Selin have written, climate “must be understood as a lived abstraction,” and clothing especially “is a sensitive indicator and rich site for the critical exposition of our increasingly turbulent seasons.” Put another way, what we put on, in, and around our bodies reflects how we conceptualize our normal environment, and in contrast to it, the extreme environment. For example, let’s return to Halkett’s boat-cloak. It is an object that, at first glance, appears comically unusual. But the device was Halkett’s attempt to solve a problem posed by an unfamiliar environment – how to traverse both land and water, without carrying extraneous, heavy gear – while also appealing to the Victorian British sense of the comfortable and the familiar, by reconfiguring the expedition boat as an extension of the ubiquitous gentleman’s cloak. The polar environment might require the explorer to do something extraordinary, outside of his comfort zone. But rather than turning to, say, indigenous Arctic technologies, Halkett’s invention reassured users that recognizable British items could solve any problem with enough foresight and some creative reconfiguration. The boat-cloak demonstrates the power of the extreme, as a frame, to make sense of unusual things, and to reveal which boundaries, both physical and cultural, historical actors were and weren’t willing to cross.

Objects can provide entry points into how historical actors understood these categories, and since the study of material culture has always been interdisciplinary, it also allows a way of thinking about extremes that is interdisciplinary as well. “Fashion’s greatest designers have…continued to pursue the outer limits of their own creativity as they seek inspiration from the extreme,” Patricia Mears writes in the catalogue for Expedition. Likewise, historians, historians of science, and other humanist scholars can find in the idea of the “extreme” a space to push the boundaries of their own research in exciting and productive ways.

Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme is on view at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York until January 6, 2018. The accompanying catalogue, which contains the author’s essay “Dress, Image, and Cultural Encounter in the Heroic Age of Polar Exploration,” is available from Thames & Hudson.

The author would like to thank Michael F. Robinson, for his thoughtful comments on an early draft of this post, and Vanessa Heggie, for sharing a draft of her forthcoming book Higher and Colder: A History of Extreme Physiology.

Sarah Pickman is a Ph.D. student in History of Science and Medicine at Yale University. Her research centers on American and British exploration, anthropology, and natural history museums in the long nineteenth century, with a focus on the material culture of expeditions, particularly in the exploration of the Arctic and Antarctica. She holds a B.A. in Anthropology from the University of Chicago and an M.A. in Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture from the Bard Graduate Center of Bard College.

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s