FAIRBANKS — Imagine a new dress featuring thousands of ivory white beads arranged in a symmetrical design against a black fabric background. The dress is stunning. The artist was inspired by 1920s fashion. One thing that makes this dress different than any other you might see in a store or magazine?
Those beads are actually salmon bones.
The sight of a fish carcass and a glimpse of its curved backbone on a local beach sparked a vision that artist Cynthia Gibson carried with her for years. She wanted to create a dress that would mimic the shape of a salmon vertebrae that caught her eye while walking on a beach near Sitka. “With a natural hole in each bone from the spinal cord, stringing them together was easy.”
She just had to get them as white as possible. That meant gathering bones from the beach and others willing to donate. Then sorting and sanding, cleaning and bleaching each tiny bead so they could be attached to a little black dress she purchased at a thrift store. And then hours upon hours of threading bones, 20,000 of them altogether.
Through trial and error, she strung, sewed and re-sewed many strands, finally settling on a finished piece worthy of a museum display.
In the meantime, the University of Alaska Museum of the North was making arrangements to purchase the dress to preserve it for future generations. Angela Linn, the museum’s senior collections manager of ethnology and history, said the dress is a beautiful and compelling interpretation of the importance of salmon to the state. “It also communicates a clear sense-of-place for a resident artist of Southeast Alaska.”
And as a piece of wearable art, Linn said it fills a hole in the collections plan for the museum’s ethnology and history department, which seeks to represent the experiences of both Indigenous people and non-Native residents.
The museum’s ethnological collection of Alaska Native items does include many examples of clothing. There are traditional skin sewn garments and a salmon skin parka in the Rose Berry Alaska Art Gallery. An Athabascan chief’s jacket made of moosehide is on display in the Gallery of Alaska as well as many, many other examples Alaska Native apparel.
The museum preserves examples of the things people have made and worn as a way to study the past, as well as the present. That’s why fashion is the theme for the museum’s hands-on programs this month. Educator Emily Koehler-Platten said it’s a compelling topic because it’s intimately linked to practicality, beauty and identity.
“Clothes can be necessary for survival, especially in cold climates,” she said. “Looking at different kinds of clothes can help reveal how people have adapted to their environment and used the resources available to them.”
A good example of this is the type of hides used in different areas of the state. In the Interior, people traditionally made clothes out of smoked moosehide and other available materials. In the western and northern areas of the state, clothes are more likely to be made with sealskin or caribou hide. Wherever you are, there are local resources available to craft clothing and accessories.
When Koehler-Platten thinks about Alaska and fashion, the first thing that comes to mind is the variety of ways Alaskans have devised to keep warm during cold weather. From caribou skin mukluks and knitted wool mittens to parkas with wolf fur trim and ski masks made of light synthetics, people in Alaska know how to stay warm and look good doing it.
“I also think of all the materials we have access to, such as fur, hide, porcupine quills, shells, feathers, grass and qiviut,” she said. “The list just keeps going. We are incredibly lucky to be able to make fashion statements with such diverse materials.”
At the same time, clothes are not just about practicality. Humans have an innate desire to make things attractive as well as useful. Fashion is a great way to explore ideas of beauty.
That’s what Gibson was going for with her salmon bone dress. “I hope that people who see the dress will be inspired. I hope it challenges them to try something audacious and outlandish. I also hope that people appreciate the simple beauty of a salmon vertebrae and that they are able to look at the natural world with more appreciation of using the things we think of as trash.”
Linn hopes to display the dress at the museum’s annual Open House in January so people can see for themselves the importance of preserving this unique dress.
“Collecting contemporary items like this is so valuable for museums,” she said. “It allows us to clearly capture the stories that inspired the artist, the stories that are told in the media about the artwork and describe all of this within the context of what is happening in Alaska right now.
If You Go
The UA Museum of the North is exploring fashion at hands-on programs in December. Early Explorers, for children five and younger, meets 10 a.m.-noon each Friday, except Dec. 29. On Saturday, Dec. 9, kids six and up are invited to Junior Curators from 2-4 p.m. Registration is required for Teen Studio on Saturday, Dec. 16 from 2-3:30 p.m., where young adults ages 13-18 can design stencils to make one-of-a-kind fashion statements. For more information about the museum’s programs and events, visit www.uaf.edu/museum or call 474-7505
Theresa Bakker is the manager of marketing and communications at the University of Alaska Museum of the North. Contact her by phone at 474-6941 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.