Philadelphia is one of my favorite cities. I love the history, the atmosphere, and (of course) the museums. So when the Michener Art Museum contacted me about their new exhibition, Philadelphia in Style, which examines “clothing and accessories created, worn, and sold in Philadelphia from 1896 to 1994”, I leapt at the chance to do a “virtual” review in the lead up to the exhibition’s opening on March 13.
To quote the exhibition website, “[w]hen it comes to fashion, New York usually gets all the attention” and yet Philadelphia gave us America’s first style icon, Dolley Madison, and has been the home of countless other fashionable women over the last two centuries — including Grace Kelly. This exhibition seeks to re-establish Philadelphia’s place as a fashionable city in the minds of visitors, and from what I’ve heard and seen, they do so magnificently.
The exhibition is a collaboration between the Michener Art Museum and the Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection at Drexel University. To quote the press release, the exhibition will “include dresses, wedding gowns, shoes, hats, and other items created, purchased, and worn in Philadelphia between 1896 and the mid-1990s. The exhibition chronicles the shift in the history of fashion, from the practice of employing dressmakers and tailors—with whom many women developed strong personal relationships—to the rise of ready-to-wear clothing from local department stores and other fashion retailers, leading to a new urban pastime: shopping.”
Louise Feder of the Michener Art Museum (who co-curated the exhibition with Dr. Kirsten Jensen, Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest Chief Curator of the Michener Art Museum, and Claure Sauro, Curator of the Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection, Drexel University) was good enough to take the time to thoroughly answer several questions I sent to her in preparation for this “virtual review.” Knowing that Worn Through readers were not your average patrons, she gave me such thorough answers, I have pasted them below in full.
Q: How did this collaborative exhibition between the Michener and the FHCC come about?
The exhibition was a coalescing of two objectives. As part of our strategic planning initiative launched last spring, we made it a primary goal to reach out to regional academic institutions for potential partnerships and to explore ways to encourage their students study our permanent collections and archives resources. Additionally, we knew that a large number of visitors had been introduced to the Michener through our Grace Kelly exhibition in 2013/14, and we wanted to find a way to recapture their interest and encourage them to visit us again. Fashion and textiles were—and remain—a significant enterprise in the Philadelphia region, so we decided to celebrate the designers, makers, and collectors of the region.
The Michener is dedicated to celebrating the arts and cultural legacy of the Delaware Valley region, and while we do not have a collection of garments and textiles, we know that there are a number of institutions in our region that do. Kirsten happened to know Clare from an earlier project, and so we reached out to Drexel first to see whether they would be interested in partnering with us on the exhibition. At the time, Clare did not have a dedicated gallery to display her collection, so we knew the exhibition would be a happy marriage between the Michener’s large temporary exhibition gallery space in the Martin Wing and Drexel’s costume collection.
Q: How many pieces will be on display?
We will have 35 dressed mannequins as well as a number of cases featuring accessories (shoes, handbags, hair accessories, belts, scarves, etc), original fashion sketches from Nan Duskin, and some production photos from Albert Nippon.
Q: What pieces’ provenance was most interesting for the curators, and how did you try to communicate the garments’/owners’ stories to the audience?
While all the pieces included in the exhibition are interesting, a favorite pair of garments for the Michener curators includes a 1935 evening dress by Elsa Schiaparelli and an evening gown from 1940 by Hattie Carnegie. Both garments belonged to Williamina Meyer de Schauensee, wife of Philadelphia-based ornithologist Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee. Williamina was known for her exceptional couture wardrobe (as well as her figure!), which included work by many French designers. However, after the fall of Paris in 1939, she turned to American designers and retailers, as did many other fashionable Philadelphia women. The pair of her dresses in Philadelphia in Style reflect this transition and showcase her ability to remain stylish while also being politically aware.
Q: What challenges have you faced in mounting the exhibition? Were there any garments that will be particularly tricky to display? Was selecting the display items hard or easy?
One of the most fragile—and therefore the one of the trickiest to handle—pieces in the exhibition is a lovely pink silk dress by the French designers Callot Soeurs that was worn by Minnie Drexel Fell Cassatt (wife of Robert Kelso Cassatt, Mary Cassatt’s nephew), who owned an incredible collection of early couture. Garments from the 1920s tend to be extremely delicate—they are made out of diaphanous silks and velvets and often have intricate beading, applique, or inserts—and this gown in particular is so fragile that Philadelphia in Style may be the only time it will be on public display.
Q: How did you decide what pieces you would use?
We worked very closely with Clare Sauro to select pieces from Drexel’s collection that told a story about fashion, design, and textiles in the Philadelphia region and which were also beautiful to look at. Clare has an exceptional depth of knowledge about the Drexel collection, fashion history, and what these pieces meant to Philadelphia women – her expertise was truly the foundation of the project. In making our final selections we discovered that the checklist includes a healthy mix of garments with very personal connections (a wedding dress) as well as those that are representative of fashion houses or department stores such as Wanamaker’s and Nan Duskin.
Q:What inspired the exhibition?
Kirsten and Louise are very interested in fashion, and Kirsten is actually a collector (primarily of fashion from the 1960s), so we decided to tie those interests to the story of our region, as that is part of the Michener’s mission. Through conversations with Clare, and visits to the Drexel collection, the three of us discovered that there were stories about the women who wore the pieces in the collection, how they chose and acquired their fashions, and where the garments were worn that formed meaningful connections across the twentieth century. We also decided as a group that Philadelphia’s story as a fashionable city needed close exploration, and what better way to discover that history than through a selection of fashions and accessories?
Q: How will the exhibition be organized? Chronologically? By designer/department store?
The exhibition is organized around rough decades that correspond to a particular style or approach to design—in many ways dictated by the pieces themselves or the designers who created them.
Q: What were the reasons for choosing the 1896 to 1994 timeline?
The three of us were primarily interested in telling the story of Philadelphia fashions in the 20th century, but with flexibility surrounding dates as trends and styles don’t always exist in neat, 10 year periods. With this in mind, we decided to look for a group of 30 garments (which grew to 35 as we each discovered additional garments that just had to be in the exhibition too!) that would tell a cohesive story of trends, styles, and the women who wore them in Philadelphia for approximately 100 years. In spending time making choices from the collection, the 1896 wedding dress was such a beautiful representation of a prominent Philadelphian dressmaker’s (Mrs. G.W.Wright) work just before the turn of the century and also makes for a nice comparison to another wedding dress in the exhibition from Bonwit Teller in 1940.
Q: What prominent Philadelphians will be featured in the exhibition?
It is truly a long list (Christine, our Marketing Director, can send you a checklist), but selections include:
Designers: James Galanos, Albert Nippon
Collectors: Minnie Drexel Fell Cassatt, Williamina Meyer de Schauensee, Julia Rush Biddle (Mrs. T. Charleton Henry), Margaret Atkinson Loughborough (Mrs. A. J. Drexel Biddle, Jr.), Kathleen P. Field, Nancy McKinney Jones (Mrs. Robert L. McNeil, Jr.), Charlotte Dorrance Wright, Bonnie B. Freundlich (wife of Richard L. Freundlich, co-owner of Nan Duskin)
Q: What do you hope visitors will learn by visiting the exhibition?
We hope that visitors will be able to learn about Philadelphia’s place within fashion’s larger history, particularly including the ways women accessed clothing in the city over the course of the 20th century. Hopefully, visitors will also be able to make stylistic and functional connections between pieces from disparate time periods.
Q: Can you describe a virtual walkthrough to readers who won’t be able to visit?
Visitors will walk through the Michener’s Martin Wing in a chronological progression of the fashions, all of which will be installed on platforms (approximately 4 mannequins each). The rear-most wall will feature an installation devoted to shoes, accessories and hats from the same time period as well as a selection of packaging from Philadelphia dressmakers and retailers. There will also be an educational interactive space for visitors of all ages that will detail the process designers go through as they become inspired to make a garment.
New York does dominate all things fashion in America, from the runways to the museums and galleries. It is hard to compete with Fashion Week and the Met Gala. But as I think Louise’s wonderful answers to my questions, and the beautiful pieces I’ve seen in the press photos here show the less talked about museums are doing their part to tell the story of America’s fashion history. They aren’t competing, but doing what museums do best, quietly educating patrons about the glamorous histories that took place in their own backyards.
I hope as many of you as can will visit Philadelphia in Style at the Michener Art Museum while it is on display from March 13 through June 26, 2016.
Are there any interesting local exhibitions happening in your area? Any fashion or textile-related events? Please feel free to let Worn Through readers know about them in the comments, or email me the details!
Opening Image Credit: