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.