Tag Archives: Philadelphia

Random Thoughts on History and the Past

Our recent trip to Pennsylvania included a lot of history, which is the top consideration whenever we plan a trip. I’m lucky that my husband is also interested in the past, as it makes for an agreeable itinerary for both of us.  The primary reason for the trip was so I could attend the regional Costume Society of America symposium in Shippensburg, PA, but when we realized how close Philadelphia was, we decided to add a few days to the trip and visit the city.

Much of what is now referred to as the Old City is owned publicly and is administered by the National Park Service. A large part of this is the Independence Hall complex, seen above. In the center is what was the old Pennsylvania State House, and it was there that the Continental Congress met to discuss and sign the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and where eleven years later the Constitutional Convention was held.

To the right is Congress Hall, where the Congress of the United States met after the government moved to Philadelphia in 1790, and behind the trees on the left is where the Supreme Court met.  In a building to the right of where I took this photo is where the Liberty Bell is now housed.

I always find the juxtaposition of modern buildings and historical ones interesting. Philadelphia is a modern city, and that is left from colonial and early Federal days is scattered  throughout the Old City. The house in which Dolly Madison lived with her first husband survives, but the house that was George Washington’s Presidential residence does not. You can visit Betsy Ross’s house, but not Ben Franklin’s.

Both Washington’s house and Franklin’s are represented as “ghost houses”, where frames made of white pipes show where the houses would be if they had survived. It’s hard to believe that the President’s residence was torn down, but look at the photo above and you can see the big yard in front of Independence Hall. Years ago this lawn was full of homes and businesses. Washington’s house was located on this lawn.

This is the Thomas Bond House, which now houses an inn, and which is where we stayed. To the left is a parking garage, to the right a paved park, and beyond that, an apartment building. The paved park is the site of the home of William Penn, the founder of the Pennsylvania colony.

It is useful in such a situation to be able to imagine the missing buildings, and to see this house as part of a street of similar ones.

Thankfully, such a street still exists. It’s Elfreth’s Alley, where the houses all date from 1720 to 1830. It is literally in the shadow of  Interstate 95 and is just off a busy modern street, but all that is forgotten when walking this alley. So how did it survive? It became home to poor immigrants, and was rediscovered in 1934 when preservation efforts began. If you look at cities where a lot of old buildings survive, you’ll see that poverty is often the reason.

And while it’s a shame that so much of historic Philadelphia was lost, the real story might be that it is amazing that so much still exists. For comparison, how many pre-1830 buildings are still standing in New York City. The answer is very few.

I found this visit to Colonial Philadelphia to be oddly comforting in our stressful political climate. It was a great reminder that the figures of the past were not perfect beings, but they were still able to create a democracy that has lasted 230 years. They enslaved people, even Franklin (who later argued against slavery). They gave women no say in the proceedings, and when Jefferson wrote “All men are created equal…” he meant all white men.

In a time when we seem to be going backward in our progress as human beings, this serves as a reminder of how far we have come since 1776. It also helps to remember that history, like fashion, is not linear. I think the best example of this is our recent elections. Total control is no longer in the hands of one political philosophy, but is now shared with those of different views. If you study how our Constitution was written, you’ll see that our country has never agreed on every issue, but it is necessary that all voices be heard.

But enough of that – let’s look at signs of fashion history. We spotted this sign just down from the Betsy Ross House, but it is not a hoop skirt factory, but an apartment building. At one time this was an industrial building, but I’m unsure if hoops were ever made there.

When traveling, don’t forget to look up.  This building on Market Street is no longer a seller of trunks and bags, but one can imagine what it must have been like one hundred years ago.

At the site of an old public house, A Man Full of Trouble must have been referring to the hatbox she is carrying.

On the way home we stopped in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, which is most known for the raid of abolitionist John Brown. Again, the National Park Service has a big presence, and it interprets not only the raid, but also the town of Harpers Ferry as it was in the nineteenth century.

I had been wanting to visit Harpers Ferry since college, when one of my professors declared that everyone in the town had one leg a bit shorter than the other from walking on the hilly streets. I actually can’t confirm that is true.

Part of the town is level, and runs along the Shenandoah River. This has been restored to look as the town did in the nineteenth century. Not knowing this, I got all excited when I saw the shop windows full of antique merchandise. As it turned out, it was just an illusion.

Still, it was fun peering into a general mercantile of the time.

The best interpreted store was an actual men’s haberdashery, Philip Frankel & Co.

Due to it being off-season, there were few rangers about to tell about the buildings, but the park has done a decent job of posting information for those willing to take the time to read.

 

 

 

 

11 Comments

Filed under Road Trip, Viewpoint

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.

22 Comments

Filed under Designers, Museums

Nan Duskin, 1942

I recently ran across this little booklet from famed Philadelphia clothing store, Nan Duskin.  Duskin started in fashion retail at the Philadelphia branch of Bonwit Teller, and later moved to The Blum Store.  In 1926 she opened her namesake ladies’ store.  She sold the store in 1959, and it eventually closed in 1995.

Nan Duskin ran a very up-scale establishment, more like a salon actually.  There were regular fashion shows with customers picking their choices to have tailored to fit.  After the store was sold in 1959 the new owner changed the format to that of a regular ready-to-wear shop, a move that led Ms. Duskin to regret selling.

But still, it was a store that continued to sell all the best labels.  If you find a dress with a Nan Duskin label, it will probably have another label as well that could range from Chanel to Jean Muir to Oscar de la Renta.

My little booklet dates to 1942, and I greatly suspect it was designed and printed before the USA joined WWII.  There is no mention of the war, which would have been unusual, and the text refers to the Southern season, which would have been January and February.  These were clothes suitable for travel, and also light weight for a visit to Florida.

For a store that became known for selling the latest in designer labels, it seems interesting that not a single designer is mentioned in the booklet.  Of course, by late 1941 the flow of fashion from Paris had slowed to a trickle, and so stores like Nan Duskin had to rely on American manufacturers who even in the early Forties were not always crediting the designer.

Most of the clothes in the booklet were made from Celanese rayon.  It could be possible that this was a joint advertising booklet between Nan Duskin and Celanese.

Even though the war is not mentioned, there is a lot of red, white, and blue in these clothes.  And be sure to take notice of the hats as well.  Although not described in this book, Nan Duskin did sell hats.  And what hats these are! Definitely high fashion.

I’d love to hear any memories you might have of Nan Duskin.

10 Comments

Filed under Designers, World War II