Thursday, October 1, 2015

"Immortal Beauty": Historic Fashion on Display in Philadelphia

Thursday, October 1, 2015
Isabella reporting,

Those of you who follow me on Facebook and Instagram know where I was today: at the preview of a new exhibition of historic fashion in Philadelphia. Immortal Beauty is the first retrospective exhibition of the Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection (FHCC) in Drexel University's Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design. That's a lot to remember, I know - but the clothes are unforgettable.

Seventy-five pieces have been chosen from the over 14,000 pieces in the collection, and they're the best of the best. The earliest piece in the show is a fragment of 16thc. Italian velvet, and there's also a delightful flowered 18thc. robe a l'anglaise with a looped skirt as well as an ethereal white muslin gown from 1808.

But the most impressive items highlight fashion from the 1880s onward, from an elaborately beaded and embroidered mantle from Charles Frederick Worth to an Alexander Wang dress straight from his 2013 runway. From the Callot Soeurs and Mariano Fortuny through Gilbert Adrian and Madame Grés to Chanel, Halston, Mary Quant, Givenchy, Dior, and Charles James - the clothes and accessories here are like a roll call of great designers.

What's most striking, however, is how accessible so many of the pieces are. True, few modern women would want to wear the corset the 1880s suit above would require, but the color-blocking of the skirt, combining broad stripes with the print, seems very modern, and the trio of 1920s dresses above could find their place on any modern red carpet.

And in a way, that has been the point of the collection from its earliest days. When A.J. Drexel founded the Drexel Institute in 1891, he included funding for purchasing both fine and decorative arts. The costume collection has always been a teaching collection, available to students for study and inspiration. Design students today may take pictures of the costumes with their iPhones, but who knows how a 1920s beaded ornament may evolve into the hit of some future New York Fashion Week?

But you don't have to be a student to visit and enjoy this exhibition. Immortal Beauty will be on display from October 2 - December 12 in the Leonard Pearlstein Gallery on Drexel's campus at 3401 Filbert Street. The exhibition is open Tuesday-Sunday, from 11:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m. and the gallery is a short walk from Amtrak's 30th Street Station. Best of all, admission is free.

I'll be sharing more clothes from Immortal Beauty over the next weeks. Many thanks to Clare Sauro and Alex McKechnie for answering my questions, and showing me through the exhibition.

Upper left: Afternoon dress by Vitaldi Babani, c1926; Evening gown by Callot Soeurs, 1926; Evening gown by Callot Soeurs/Henri Bendel, 1919.
Upper right: Day dress by Augustine Martin/Darlington Runk, 1880.
Lower left: Day ensemble by Mary Quant, 1963; Suit by Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel, 1959.
Lower right: An assortment of 18th-19thc. women's shoes.
All photographs ©2015 Susan Holloway Scott.


Karen Anne said...

I tried on a suit very much like that Chanel suit in my younger days. I had no hope of buying it, but the saleslady was very nice. It was amazing what it felt like and how it fit, even though it was too big. I can see why people who have money to throw away would spend it on something like this.

Bibbi123 said...

Check out the website: It is an exhibit of 50 historic garments made by a single person. Mid-November on the Univ. of Washington campus -- the Drama Department lent us a theatre for 2 weeks. 5 day's on view. Free. Just a retrospective of one woman's incredible talent.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Karen Anne - Most of us never have the chance to try on a Chanel suit, let alone wear one! :)

Bibbi - This looks like an incredible exhibition! So much detail in those beautiful costumes. Wish I could see it, too. Thank you for sharing. :)

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