Sunday, March 20, 2016

"Philadelphia in Style": A Century of Fashion

Sunday, March 20, 2016
Isabella reporting,

As anyone who reads this blog regularly knows by now , there are few things I enjoy more than an exhibition of historic clothing. Last week I attended the preview of a splendid one: Philadelphia in Style: A Century of Fashion from the Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection, Drexel University. The exhibition is now on display at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, PA, not far from Philadelphia, and what a pleasure it is.

I saw a selection of pieces from the Fox Collection on display last year, but their holdings are so vast (over 14,000 pieces) that there aren't any duplicates this time around. The focus of this show is Philadelphia as center of style, and features clothing and accessories made, worn, or sold by Philadelphia women from 1896-1994. Unlike many costume exhibitions, the clothes are not locked away in Plexiglas boxes, making it easy to see (and photograph) the details of stitch, lines, and embellishments. I also appreciated that, while the clothes did belong to an elite group of customers, these women also came in a variety of heights, sizes, and shapes. These aren't all minuscule model-sized garments, and they reflect their wearers' bodies (and supporting undergarments) as much as their tastes.

In addition to some truly exception clothes made by some of the biggest names in modern fashion history - Dior, Chanel, Halston, Callot Soeurs, Gallanos, Oscar de la Renta, Adrian – the exhibition also includes a selection of fashion drawings from the 1920s-1950s. These stylish sketches, (like the one middle left) some with fabric swatches attached, helped wealthy customers decide what to order from designers in those days before everyone had an iPhone aimed at the runway.

As difficult as it is for me to choose favorites, here are two of the dresses that I liked the most. The navy blue day dress, above left and right, was part of a Philadelphia bride's trousseau in 1903. The fabric is "homespun" (an evocative, romantic term by then, not a literal one) wool, but a very light-weight wool, woven in an open weave, that would have made it practical for summer travel or promenades. But it's not entirely sensible: the contrasting trim adds stylish emphasis to the dress's lines, and the embroidered Chinese-inspired applique is bright and eye-catching. The young bride who wore this dress would have begun her married life quite fashionably.

Not even twenty years separate the navy dress from my second favorite, but fashion changed dramatically in that time. Gone is the ground-skimming hem and corset-defined shape The dress, right, is a 1916 evening dress by the famous Parisian design house of Callot Soeurs, and it's as insubstantial as a summer breeze.

Made of silk satin and net, and trimmed with metallic embroidery, velvet trim, and millinery flowers, the colors are still fresh and vibrant. There are two long streamers from the back shoulders, and those, combined with the airy full skirt, must have been made for the latest foxtrot. But although the colors are still fresh and bright - I'd bet there are plenty of high school girls today who'd love to wear this dress to their proms - the dress itself is so fragile that this will likely be its one and only time on display. Like Cinderella herself, this dress will have this final time beneath the lights to sparkle, and then back it will go into careful storage.

Philadelphia in Style will be on view through June 26, 2016. See the exhibition web site for more information and directions. For more information about the Fox Historic Costume Collection, see here.

Top dress: Day Dress, blue homespun wool, 1903, American. 
Middle illustration: Fashion Illustrations for Nan Duskin, watercolor, gouache, ink on paper, c1954, American.
Lower dress: Evening Dress, by Callot Soeurs, silk satin, net, velvet, millinery flowers, with glass and metallic embroidery, c1916-1917, France.
All pieces from the Fox Historic Costume Collection, Drexel University. 
All photographs ©2016 Susan Holloway Scott.


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