CHICAGO -- Designer Maria Pinto, well-known for dressing first lady Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey, used her eye for fashion to curate antiquities from the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago for a new exhibit that includes a century-old shredded bark Brazilian ceremonial costume and a woven monkey fur necklace.

The materials are a stretch from the rich, bright purple silk Pinto used to design the sheath Obama wore during the 2008 Democratic National Convention. "Fashion and The Field Museum Collection: Maria Pinto" opened Friday and includes an Inuit raincoat made of seal intestines. It was the first item that caught Pinto's attention, she said.

"I could totally see anyone wearing it," Pinto said. "What I loved about these creations was they had limited resources. They needed a raincoat and they realized they could use seal intestines. How creative is that?"

Pinto walked through the vast storage areas under the museum and chose items that appealed to her. Pinto and co-curator Alaka Wali chose 25 garments and adornments to pair with seven pieces from Pinto's collections. The museum items are juxtaposed with Pinto's designs.

"Part of the point is you can't tell if she designed them or someone in the Andes Amazon designed them," said Janet Hong, an exhibition project manager at the museum.

Another highlight is a full outfit designed by Pinto, who closed her Chicago boutique more than two years ago because of the poor economic climate. The outfit includes a structured blue wool coat, red fur collar and skinny pants. It was inspired by a Chinese theatrical headdress.

Pinto found herself particularly drawn to weapons, tools and armor in the museum collection. She matched metal elbow-length samurai gauntlets with a wool green suit for the office, saying the suit is modern-day armor for women.

"The whole idea of armor plays into a lot of how I envision what we wear every day," Pinto said.

Other Pinto designs in the exhibit include a sequined chiffon shoulderless cocktail dress from her 2008 fall collection and a knee-length black silk taffeta, bias-cut cocktail dress from her 2010 spring collection.

The exhibition has a trendier feel than many other exhibits at the museum known for dinosaurs and mummies. A large video is projected on one wall showing images from the exhibit accompanied by techno music that might be heard on runways in New York.

"I wanted it to be something more contemporary," Pinto said. "Make the music have an influence over the experience to the degree of making it more of an art gallery."

The exhibit runs through June 16.



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  • This Inuit raincoat is made of translucent seal intestines, meticulously stitched together with red and blue thread. Simply and elegantly decorated, the coat has a timeless quality.

  • A handcrafted armor vest from Cameroon, this masterpiece is made of crocodile skin. The vest inspired Pinto to explore the way material can be stitched together to take advantage of its patterns and textures.

  • This beautifully brocaded Mongolian silk tunic is called a "deel." It was most likely worn during ceremonial occasions.

  • Cowries, the shells of a marine snail, have been valued for thousands of years all over the world. This headdress from Togo combines the smooth beauty of these shells with the horns of an antelope for a fascinating contrast.

  • These "hot pants" may look like they're from the 1970s, but they're actually much older. Traditionally worn with tall boots by the Angmagssalik people of Greenland, they nearly disappeared when Danish missionaries arrived and thought them immodest.

  • Hand-painted and trimmed in badger fur, this shirt was created by an unknown Sioux artist and was probably worn at Grass Dances.

  • Displayed at Chicago's World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, this ceremonial head ornament was created by an unknown Zaparo artist from the upper reaches of Peru's Amazon River. The headdress is made of human hair, clamshells, toucan feathers, beetles' wings, and monkeys' teeth.

  • This sword and sheath were created by an Arab-influenced artisan in the Nile region of Sudan. The blade was forged in Europe and traded across the Sahara, while the spectacular sheath was created using the entire body of a crocodile.

  • This large battle shield, made by an Amharic artisan of Ethiopia, is constructed from the skin of a hippo. Designer Maria Pinto was attracted to the shield's unusual material as she roamed The Field Museum's vast Anthropology collections.

  • This dazzling headdress was designed and created by an unknown Caraja artist of Brazil. Made of twisted palm cord and the brilliantly hued feathers of Amazonian birds, this work embodies an aesthetic sense prevalent throughout the Amazon.

  • This Chinese theatrical headdress is created with pearls, blue kingfisher feathers, pompons, and other luxurious materials. Its rich colors and textures inspired Pinto to create an entirely new ensemble of women's wear, exclusively displayed at The Museum's newest exhibition, Fashion and The Field Museum Collection: Maria Pinto.