STORY WRITTEN BY ANN CORNELL
@ann_cornell on Twitter
DOYLESTOWN >> Entering the portion of the James A. Michener Museum that houses the Philadelphia in Style exhibition is like stepping into a garden party. Except at this event, museum-goers arrive to mingle with inanimate guests of honor. The walls are lined with fashion illustrations, swatches, dresses, shoes, hats and bags from eras that stretch back to the 1800s — all from the Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection at Drexel University.
It’s not an accident that the sartorial selections are a swirl of bright, light colors that seem to scream “Spring!”
“I wanted it to feel like a celebration. The pieces are overwhelmingly joyous,” collection curator Clare Sauro says.
Michener Museum Assistant Curator Louise Feder chimes in, “When we added the Elizabeth Arden [piece]. Clare called and said — ”
“‘I’ve found the piece that anchors everything!’” Sauro says excitedly.
“Clare loved everything so obviously and so clearly that it came together beautifully,” says Feder.
“We were interested as museum in engaging in collaborative projects with area academic institutions,” says Kirsten Jensen, Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest chief curator at the Michener. “Three of those academic institutions just happened to have fashion and design programs as well as collections (in two of them). I’m very interested in costume and textiles and I’m a collector, and we knew that fashion exhibitions have had a good track run here. I emailed Clare, at that time she didn’t really have a dedicated gallery to show her pieces ‘Would you like to collaborate with us on an exhibition looking at Philadelphia’s role in fashion?’”
The Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection has been around for more than a century, Sauro says. According to the Drexel University website, “The acquisition of fashionable dress and accessories was first suggested in 1898 by Howard Pyle, who was then Director of the School of Illustration, ‘as a help to historic and artistic study’ by the dressmaking and millinery students.”
By the 1950s, the collection had grown to include more than 2,000 items, the website states.
“We’re still trying to establish ourselves,” Sauro said. “We know we have a serious, world-class collection, but people don’t even know that we exist. The opportunity to have our exhibition followed by this exhibition is just phenomenal,” Sauro says.
“Kirsten approached me when I was in the process of mounting our very first retrospective exhibition ‘Immortal Beauty,’ which was a huge success,” Sauro said. “We hadn’t even closed Immortal Beauty when we started dressing for Michener. So the time frame was very tight, but we knew this was the ‘perfect fit,’” she says, before laughing and gently chiding herself for using that term. “It dovetailed nicely with my own personal research interest. Since I’ve arrived at Drexel, I’ve been looking into the history of retailers and history of fashion in Philadelphia, but it was all internal research. Kirsten was offering me the opportunity to take these things that I’d grown so attached to and put them out and share them with the public.
“‘Immortal Beauty’ was our introductory exhibition, so it was very much ‘This is who we are’ and the this is the best of our collection. Philadelphia in Style was a completely different tone; it was a celebration of an area and a lot more free and fun.”
Philadelphia is often overshadowed by neighboring metropolitan titans — New York City and Washington, D.C., Assistant Curator Louise Feder admits. “We have the advantage and the disadvantage of being in a really rich cultural area. [Both] are wonderful, globally recognized cities, and Philadelphia is as well, but when you’re put next to a city that’s so much larger, like New York — it’s a fact that the real fashion center is there — it’s hard to carve out an area beyond your own local audience. All of us are regional enough that we know our own history, but it’s something that needed to be explored further, and we’re happy to do that.”
KIRSTEN JENSEN: There were a lot of mills in Pennsylvania that were making textiles that were used in New York, and that’s a really important story, too. That it’s not just the pieces themselves, it’s actually the fabric [that has its historical ties to Philadelphia] and that is a really important story. Then there’s the dressmakers and the shoemakers and the milliners … . New York quickly became, in the 19th century, the place. It doesn’t mean that the stories that are here are any less rich; it just means you’re waiting to tell them. And that’s what we started to do. Since we’re a museum dedicated to the arts of the region, it makes perfect sense for us to look at Philadelphia and fashion, rather than focusing on a narrow band of painting and sculpture. Fashion is an art form, so we’re interested in looking at all the aspects of fashion in this region.
LOUISE FEDER: The show is not just for people interested in fashion. My husband in there and is learning about the manufacturing history of our region, which speaks to people interested in lots of things beyond pretty dresses. There’s a graphic design element that shows people what packaging [hat boxes, shoe boxes] looks like.
Clare Sauro: The 1940 wedding dress. That came in a few years ago at Drexel. It was brought in by [someone acquainted with the bride.] I did not expect her to come in with the original box for the gown and original box for the veil. It was untouched. … It was a really sweet, sweet time capsule.
KIRSTEN JENSEN: For me, it’s some of the stories of the women. Some of the prominent names [of the clothes’ former owners], they maybe got their recognition and their social positions through their husbands, some of them already had that before they married and were incredible in their own right. The clothes become part of that story; they’re part of telling the lives of these women. It’s International Women’s History Month; it’s great to open this show that week. There are these stories of these women who were active philanthropically and in the community. Then there’s all these other women who weren’t socialites, but who also have interesting stories to tell. That history is part of where we are and who we are; it’s not just a couture collection.
At the exhibit’s entrance, a sign bearing a quote from Nan Duskin Lincoln greets every visitor: “[T]here is indeed a Philadelphia Look, and it is one of consummate good taste, elegant and understated, the rare sort of elegance that is sensed immediately as well as seen.”
“There’s nothing written about Nan Duskin, and she was so important,” Jensen says.
Duskin “opened her first shop in February 1927 at 18th and Sansom Streets. Her policy was to offer only the finest merchandise from America and Europe,” according to a 1994 Philadelphia Inquirer article from 1994.
Nan Duskin was the boutique for Philadelphia’s high society, carrying clothes from designers including “Chanel, Donna Karan, Giorgio Armani and Yves Saint Laurent,” states a post from Megan Robles on the Fox Historic Costume blog
Although Nan Duskin expanded her fashion empire to include stores in Strafford and Haverford, changes in the retail landscape and within the company led to the stores’ eventual closure, with the Rittenhouse Square flagship store shuttering in 1994, 14 years after Duskin’s death.
Tributes to the era of Nan Duskin are sprinkled throughout the exhibit, not only with clothes and shoes purchased from her boutique, but beautiful shoe and hat box packaging, as well as store credit cards bearing her name.
Jensen’s full-hearted love for the ’60s gives her a penchant for [Philadelphia-born designer James] Galanos, another lesser-known figure in the style world. “He’s important and people know his name, but I don’t think he gets as much recognition as some of the other designers from that era. His clothes are so incredibly well-crafted and designed; I think the detail that goes into what he does is very important,” she says.
“There was a really talented Polish-born, but living in the United States, textile designer named Pola Stout,” Sauro adds. She had a mill in North Philadelphia that produced the premier woolens of the late ’40s and early ’50s and many, many major American designers were using her. In that exhibition we have a magnificent striped coat designed by Irene, and it’s a gorgeous Pola Stout textile. And Pola Stout is just one of those names, again, there’s very little information out there, so she is also on my list of really worthy people with a Philadelphia connection that I’m going to try to bring out into the sunlight. But Nan’s first!
Favorite piece in the exhibit
LOUISE FEDER: Pink Callot Soeurs dress; it’s just stunning, and it may be the last time it’s on a mannequin.
Clare Sauro: It’s 100-year-old tulle, it just can’t happen again. She [the dress] shouldn’t exist at this point!
LOUISE FEDER: That’s my favorite to look at, but the one I would wear is easily the Irene jacket. It’s just gorgeous, and is pretty contemporary.
KIRSTEN JENSEN: Mine would be the Galanos with the [Norman] Norell right next to it. That’s my platform. After that, the Schiaparelli, just the body-consciousness and just the technique and the tailoring….
Clare Sauro: As a curator, I’m not terribly objective. [But] I love the Callot [Soeurs]; Callot’s one of my favorite fashion houses, but I also love the Galanos and I think he deserves more acclaim.
Clare Sauro: We have internationally recognized fashion programs here — including Drexel — but there seems to be general chaos in fashion right now. The fast fashion model is not working. I was having this conversation with [the Inquirer’s] Elizabeth Wellington yesterday that it seems like we’re rebooting and going back to the small [shops] and smaller batches and also seasonless dressing. The idea that this is “Fashion Week,” is turning into something more organic. You’re flowing from season to season, and it’s more about the lifestyle of the person wearing it rather than a designer’s dictates.
KIRSTEN JENSEN: There are a lot of these smaller designers are making their pieces here, and the idea of the locality and that they are really dedicated to that and they’re dedicated to having them made in the United States or made locally in Philadelphia. I think the younger generation, the culture, is really moving back to that across the board. The interest in buying local — whether it’s produce or clothing — the idea of really having that connection to your place. If you move around, that idea that items have this history. It ties into that rejection of fast fashion. I’m really happy to see that myself because we’re filling up landfills with all the things we buy and reject. There’s only so much you can recycle. I think that it’s a good move, even from an ecological perspective, to have people buy less but have a bigger connection to it.
LOUISE FEDER: There is a store called Intrigue in Buckingham [PA] where they partner with local designers pretty regularly. A number of them have come through Drexel, and they make sure they showcase regional talent. People who visit the museum love to have a story about where their clothes came from. It was fun today, running into members; everyone had a reason for wearing what they were wearing.
CLARE SAURO: [Gesturing to a black-and-white zipper scarf around her shoulders] I felt that I had an obligation to promote Philadelphia-made goods. This is Lele Tran, and I love it. I paid more for it because I knew it was made locally, and I said, ‘You know what? It’s special.’ We have an obligation to do something more meaningful with our fashion.