Fabulous Fashion at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Over the past twenty years I’ve seen dozens of fashion exhibitions. Each one is different, and with each one I always learn something. I was really happy when I learned that Fabulous Fashion:  From Dior’s New Look to Now was opening on our last day in Philadelphia, and that I’d get to finally get to see some of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s fabulous fashion collection.

Fashion exhibitions have changed quite a bit over the past twenty years. It’s just not reasonable for a museum to throw together a bunch of pretty dresses and call it a show. There has to be a theme. In Fabulous Fashion, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has tried to do both, and has succeeded somewhat in this mission.

Simply stated, this is a show showing the highlights of the museum’s holdings from 1947 through the present day. It’s not based on chronology, but on design themes like shape and color. Thrown into the mix were cases of accessories, which may or may not have added to the themes. The exhibition ended with a bit of bridal fashion.

The most  interesting part of the show – to me at least – was how so many of the objects were connected to the city of Philadelphia, with either the designer or the original wearer being from the city. In this day of super-block-busting Met extravaganzas, I appreciate it when a museum can rely on its own collection to mount an exhibition of this size. I felt like this was both a fashion experience and a Philadelphia experience.

When did museums start thinking that putting fashion on huge spaces and above eye level was a good idea? As a person who is always concerned with the details, I hate this method of display. Yes, I know a big wall of stunning clothes makes a big impact, but to me having the objects so inaccessible makes it hard to appreciate the fabrics and the techniques the makers used.

Please, museum display people, let this trend die.

Even though he got billing in the exhibition title, there is only one (that I noticed, anyway) Dior garment in the show. It’s a real beauty, though, and so typical of what Dior was doing in 1948. What looks like stripes in the skirt is actually little rows of top-stitching. This is why I love being able to get close to the clothes. That detail would have been lost if it were mounted on that big wall.

Who else but Balenciaga? This 1951 dress perfectly embodies the theme of shape and volume. This was a gift from John Wanamaker, the best known Philadelphia department store. It had been purchased for a special fashion show at the store.

Ralph Rucci, 2001. I didn’t realize that Rucci is from Philadelphia. This is an astounding dress, with its stingray-like structure.

Here’s a lovely creation by Jean Dessès from 1958 or 59. This one has an interesting donor, Mrs. Claus Von Bulow.

After seeing the Pierre Cardin exhibition at SCADFASH, I always give his work a second look. I loved this dress with those trademark circular ruffles. 1983

That dress with the puffed sleeves on the left is an Adrian. There was no way to photograph this one so you could see the lushness of the fabric.

There’s that Adrian again, in the background where it does not belong.

The dress in front is Smoke, by Roberto Capucci. He did a matching dress in red that he named Fire. 1985

One of my favorites, and a true treasure is this hand-painted gown by Philadelphia native Tina Leser. Leser began her career making hand-painted textiles, and her blouses come up for sale fairly often. I’d never before seen a dress in this technique though.

And what could be better than having Leser’s original sketch? She donated both the dress and the sketch to the museum.

Sea Fan Fantasy, 1947

Next up was a case of footwear. This pair was made by Philadelphia shoe company Newton Elkin, in 1947. After wartime dye restrictions, women must have gone crazy over such colorful shoes!

Vivienne Westwood, circa 1993. The docent leading the tour said that the original owner never wore these, as she bought them as a work of art and displayed them as such.

So simple, but SO influential, these 1966 boots by Andre Courrèges were copied far and wide.

The next theme is embellishment. Those of you who know me and how I dress know that I’m not big on highly-embellished clothes, but I can appreciate an embroidered frock with the best of you. Like the one above.

This circa 1961 dress was designed by Italian designer Emilio Schuberth, of whom I’d never heard. But what a dress!

So much embellishment! Left to right: Giambattista Valli for Ungaro, 2004; Geoffrey Beene, 1968; Emanuel Ungaro, 1989. Yes, the Beene is a dress. He had recently declared that ballgowns were passé, and so this little thing is an evening dress.

On the left, Oscar de la Renta, 1999. On the right, James Galanos, 1957.

I was surprised to learn that Galanos was born in Philly, as he is so associated with California. For those of you who will be in the Philadelphia area, don’t miss the Galanos show at Drexel University, which holds his archive. I missed this one by only a few days.

There is no way for me to show with my simple camera and middling photography skills just how wonderful this textile is. It’s completely hand sequined and beaded on a layer of sheer silk.  And this was ready-to-wear!

I’ll continue my tour later this week.


Filed under Designers, Museums

22 responses to “Fabulous Fashion at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

  1. Balenciaga’s so melodramatic one cannot escape its rare beauty. And I love Tina Leser’s contribution. Surprised they didn’t exhibit Grace Kelly.


  2. Once again, I would like to thank you for bringing this exhibition to my attention. I don’t know much about fashion, but I appreciate everything you post. I am especially grateful for your descriptions of the fabrics.


  3. This is on my list of things to see in the next few months!


  4. So fantastic!!!! Thanks so much for sharing it!


  5. Linda

    I will be seeing this in 2 weeks and enjoyed reading your post. As a native Philadelphian, as a young girl the highlight of my visit to the Art Museum would be seeing, Philadelphia’s own favorite daughter, Princess Grace’s wedding gown. Unfortunately, the gown hasn’t been displayed in years.


  6. jacq staubs

    This one – of all I have seen – you have shared – is truly “fabulous”! I am looking at my schedule – may have to take the time. I happen to love the museum and the building.


  7. Phyl D

    I so appreciate both your photos (wonderful!) and text for this exhibit as well as your comments on the frustrating and not so great trends in fashioning some of these exhibits, in total agreement there….
    I’m really looking forward to your next blog entry for this exhibit…definitely putting the Philadelphia Museum on my “want to visit” list.
    Take care!


  8. How do we start a campaign for better museum exhibits of fashion? We shouldn’t need binoculars to see the exhibits. At the very least, cheapest level, putting a mirror behind every garment would give a back view. I wouldn’t care if the mirrors were cheap or flawed as long as they worked. On the big budget level, I have attended exhibits where the descriptive labels were on “pads” or “notebook” sized computers — a technology that could give us an all-around view and closeups of the details — but they were stupidly used to put the ID labels into a slide show, so viewers had to stand in place for minutes till the right slide came around! However, one excellent docent had — on her own — researched the designers in the show and shared videos and details on her own, personal electronic notebook. Back in the 80’s, I designed and built opera costumes for The Marriage of Figaro. Years later, I visited the V&A, where you often get a chance to walk around the costumes. In spite of all my research and historically correct pattern drafting, that was my first back view of an actual18th century man’s coat sleeve. And yes, I had struggled for hours to “fix” a problem that was not considered a problem in the 1780s!


    • The best use of tablets that I’ve seen is at SCADFASH in Atlanta. Student docents are in the exhibition area with their tablets ready to show more about any of the garments, including video of the garment being worn. This also encourages conversation about the garments. Truly effective.

      Mirrors do work, and I always appreciate them. Also, having islands and peninsulas of display space that enable the walk-around not only increase display space, but make the viewing from different angles possible. This is not rocket science!


  9. That Galanos dress is truly timeless.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Christine Seid

    Just. Love. This. Post.
    Your notes and photos – immersive.


  11. Louise Picardo Hundertmark

    Impressive collection!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Ellen Ruggles

    Wonderful post. I always enjoy your museum exhibits and book reviews.


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