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!


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