Historic Fashion at Drexel (or: Boxes and Boxes of Clothes!)

Over the past year and a half, instead of traveling around Europe like in 2011-2012, I have been splitting my time between New York and Philadelphia (with the occasional trip to Boston or Minnesota).  I got in to FIT in New York for grad school, and my boyfriend Igor was accepted to do a PhD in comparative literature at UPenn.  While it was a big adjustment to be in different cities, it has been a great excuse to get out of New York (a city that, while it has much to offer, is unfortunately not somewhere I feel at home), and get to know Philly.  It is such a wonderful city!  So much history and culture, some really beautiful neighborhoods, great museums, great food, and it’s also really laid back.  Everyone I have met there has been incredibly nice and welcoming (maybe that’s just how museum people in Philadelphia are?).  There is also a crêperie down the street from Igor’s apartment that is owned by a man from Brioude, a tiny town just a few train stops away from Le Puy where we lived in France.  Small world.

The skyline of Philadelphia

The skyline of Philadelphia

One of the best experiences I have had in Philadelphia was interning last summer at Drexel University’s Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection.  I had the chance to help out for a few weeks this past month before classes start up again, and I was so happy to be there again!  It is such a privilege to work with such an incredible collection and a really fabulous staff.  There have been a lot of exciting changes for the collection in the past year, with a big donation, name change, planning for their first big exhibition, and lots of donations coming in, while still sorting through objects that were never moved into storage after the new space was built.  This last part is primarily what I was involved in.

Over the summer, another intern and I worked on developing a system to organize and inventory the “Dirty Room,” which is basically a room full (and I mean really full) of boxes of clothes, mostly from the second half of the nineteenth century through the first half of the twentieth.  I’m talking giant, human body sized boxes; it can be quite the workout to move them!  The objects in this room never made it into the main storage space, and have been stored in less-than-desireable conditions for a while, so boxes need to be examined before brought into the main collection.  It is also kind of a mystery as to what is in there; no one has looked through these boxes for a long time.  Not all of the objects will be transferred over, so another part of our job was assessing which pieces were significant (and in good condition) and should be considered for transfer into the main collection, and maybe even used in the exhibition.  There were a few different numbering systems used to label the garments over the past several decades, so we also had to match up the different systems to be able to track down the original records.  Luckily, most objects are labeled with a number and the donor name.  This is pretty significant, as the donor names can often tell us if the garment belonged to someone important.  Drexel’s collection, and in particular things in the Dirty Room (because they were transferred from another collection, long story…) has a lot of objects that belonged to the Drexel family and other prominent Philadelphians (for anyone who goes to UPenn – does Van Pelt sound familiar?).


Every once in a while we find something special and bring it into the collection. This wedding dress was recorded as a Worth design in the files, but it has no label inside. Isn’t she stunning?!


I love dresses with dangly bits! and pearls!

Working in the Dirty Room is like a treasure hunt.  You never know what you will find next!  It turns out that it is probably 75% wedding dresses, which makes sense if you think about it.  Wedding dresses are the most common piece of clothing that people save for years, they don’t get worn out because they are usually only worn once (or sometimes by a few family members), and people value them so highly (especially on a sentimental level) that they want them preserved in collections.  I never thought I would be jaded by seeing so many nineteenth century wedding dresses.  It is exciting when we find a whole wedding ensemble, complete with accessories.  Sometimes there is even a photo of the bride wearing it, and if you’re lucky, the original record has correspondence from the donor about who wore it, what the wedding was like, etc.  One time there was a letter describing how the newlyweds drove off from the church in a carriage led by their prize-winning horses!  Then there was the one that said the dress was from her first marriage and it wasn’t a happy one… So many stories!


Wedding dress c.1881-1885, complete with shoes and fan, below!  There was also extra fabric and a pair of stockings.


The other really exciting thing to find in the dirty room are dressmaker’s labels.  Every once in a while, there is a New York or Paris label.  Often, they are from Philadelphia!  It is so cool that the collection really tells the history of a certain place and the people in it.  One of my personal favorite finds is this gorgeous formal day dress with the label “Darlington, Runk & Co, Philadelphia.”  Usually the maker is printed on the waist tape of the bodice, but this one had another label on the back, too!  It’s from 1870-75.


64_63_5label1Then of course there is just a lot of eye candy!  And apparently I have a thing for buttons.  I love the buttons!

This beauty was labeled 1830-40. It is printed cotton with velvet trim and buttons, and is all hand-sewn (pre-widespread use of sewing machines!) Most garments we saw were 1870s-1900s, so it was exciting to see something older!

This beauty was labeled 1830-40. It is printed cotton with velvet trim and buttons, and is all hand-sewn (pre-widespread use of sewing machines!) Most garments we saw were 1870s-1900s, so it was exciting to see something older!

detail of a wedding dress from 1903, label: Foley Philadelphia

detail of a wedding dress from 1903, label: Foley Philadelphia.  More dangly bits!


This c.1870 showstopper is by L. Hentenaar, Paris. We found a few pieces by this maker, but it seems pretty obscure… more research to be done!

1920 Worth velvet evening coat with quilted lining and 2 FULL FOXES as the collar. The heads are on the back. There are feet in there, too.

1920s Worth velvet evening coat with quilted lining and 2 FULL FOXES as the collar. The heads are on the back. There are feet in there, too.

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As classes at FIT are starting up again this week (after these couple of snow days – woo!) my time at Drexel has come to an end for now.  I hope to stay involved there and continue to help out with their fabulous collection!  I leave the Dirty Room tasks in the capable hands of Hannah, a student at Drexel who is doing her co-op at the collection.  May you find many treasures!


Montreal Museums and la Mode

Hi everyone! It has been quite a while since I last posted on this blog, but I’ve decided it’s time to revive it because I have so many exciting things to write about (and photos of course!) For those of you who don’t know, I currently live in New York City and I am about to start my final semester in a masters program at the Fashion Institute of Technology called “Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice.” It has been an interesting year and a half in New York with many ups and downs, and I am excited to graduate and enter a new field that I love! For this post, though, I’m going to go back to why I started this blog in the first place – France! Unfortunately I haven’t made it back to France since my amazing stay as a language teaching assistant in Le Puy-en-Velay, but I did recently visit the next best thing – Montreal! Igor and I took a trip for my birthday, and it was so wonderful to be in another francophone city. Montreal has such an active and diverse cultural life, and I was happy to find that two different fashion exhibitions were on view while we were there, one at the McCord Museum and one at the Musée du Costume et du Textile du Québec. Today I’ll talk about “Chic et Choc,” presented by MCTQ.

image from mctq.org

image from mctq.org

The theme of this exhibition is embellishment – stones, beads, sequins gold threads… At first, this can seem like a kind of obvious or unoriginal theme – let’s put a bunch of glittery flashy stuff on display!  But I actually really enjoyed the way MCTQ curated this show, from the choice of objects to how they were displayed, and especially the accompanying labels that made you think about more than just our attraction to all that is glitter and gold.  I like this quote from the introductory text: “The CHIC & CHOC exhibition explores this glittering, fascinating world of dazzling garments and accessories.  It also sheds light on the raw materials involved and the element of inconvenience: fabric quality and maintenance, material sourcing and use, craft or industrial production.  The impacts and implications of this taste for luxury are exposed: this is the CHOC.”


The exhibition started with some beautiful accessories


I thought this purse from 1910-1929 was particularly impressive because of the beautiful pattern and the teeny tiny metal beads. Beads like that would never be produced today!

The exhibition was divided into sections, and in each section elements of “CHIC” and “CHOC” were discussed, along with symbols resembling the care instructions on a garment label, which I thought was a clever little addition.  I particularly liked that several sections touched on conservation issues, like the discussion of dresses from the 1920s that are of lightweight fabric embroidered with (literally) heavy beading and embroidery.  Over time, the fabric rips from the weight of the embellishment and the poor dresses are often falling apart after almost 100 years.  Many museums have these incredibly beautiful dresses housed in flat storage because they have ripped shoulders and cannot be hung.  It is a bit sad, like a fashion morgue or something, but then I think of the spirit in which these dresses were probably made.  They were not made to last; they were made to be worn to a few parties, where I like to think that the free spirited, fun loving wearer danced the night away and enjoyed some cocktails, her dress glittering with every move.  Then the dress was tossed aside when the wearer (who, let’s face it, was probably filthy rich) decided she wanted a new one.  Isn’t that the life?  Anyway, I thought it was great that the exhibition brought up this issue that I think most people don’t really think about. The label below also touches on other issues embellishments have – sequins used to be made of gelatin, which is water-soluble (so be careful when washing vintage pieces with sequins!), and metal can rust, glass can break, etc.


As this was in Quebec, all of the labels were in French and English – take note, learners of French! This is a great way to practice and learn new words!

I was so happy that the museum chose to display these dresses even though they are too fragile to be put on a mannequin. I wish more museums would display items flat so that the public can see them, instead of leaving these beauties in storage for only a lucky few to see.

I was so happy that the museum chose to display these dresses even though they are too fragile to be put on a mannequin. I wish more museums would display objects flat for public viewing instead of leaving these beauties in storage for only a lucky few to see.



The exhibition space was small, but I love how they divided sections with these slightly sheer black fabric panels. It gave you direction but didn’t make the space feel smaller. (Aaaand these are the things that you only really think about when you are in school for museum studies, right?)

The exhibition spanned the entire twentieth century, and included a mix of both designer pieces and pieces not attributed to a designer.  I liked that the focus was on the garments themselves and what went into making them, rather than highlighting only pieces made by famous names.  As someone who loves making clothes and learning about historical construction techniques and materials, this was totally up my alley.  There was also a video that featured interviews of artisans who discussed how the industry of embellished materials has changed, and how it is difficult now to make a living doing work by hand.  They explained that while machine embellishment is cheaper, hand sewn beading is much more durable and long-lasting.


Confession: I secretly have a thing for giant paillettes. I’m loving the top on the right, although I’m not sure if I could pull of wearing something like that in public!

One of the major highlights of the exhibition was a costume that Celine Dion wore on stage (fitting for this museum, since she is from Québec!).  They even displayed the original pattern for the pants, which were hand beaded with Swarovski crystals.



kind of cheesy and 90s, but that’s 1999 for ya.

complete with mic pack!

complete with mic pack!

Overall, I found the exhibition really enjoyable!  I wish Montreal was closer so that I could visit more often.  It is such a great city with wonderful museums, food, tons of festivals, and just a really unique feel with how diverse and multilingual it is. (Although there are a few too many underground malls.  Like, way too many… don’t get out on the “St Catherine Street” side of the subway station because you will get stuck in blocks and blocks of underground malls.)

One last thing from MCTQ that I would like to share – these incredible paper garments were displayed in the Marché Bonsecours where the museum is located.  Aren’t they great?  They trace the fashionable silhouette from the 1880s to the 1920s.


This mini exhibition was put on by the Bibliothèque et Archives Nationales du Québec

DSCN5418 DSCN5428Well, that’s all for now.  Thank you for reading, and I look forward to sharing more of my fun fashion- and museum-related adventures!  Stay tuned for a post about the McCord Museum’s exhibition Love in Fine Fashion: Wedding Dresses from the McCord Museum.