For the first time ever at this scale, Drexel University opens its costume archives for “Immortal Beauty,” an exhibit that spans nearly 150 years of sartorial history.
Detail of a dress by Madame Grès, circa 1984.
My reaction to Drexel University’s historic costume collection—the teaching collection that only its students have access to—is that of every outsider lucky enough to get a peek into this “fashion closet” almost 150 years in the making: delighted surprise. It’s an impressive assembly of couture designers that fashionistas know and love (Chanel, Givenchy, Schiaparelli, Dior, Oscar de la Renta, Yves Saint Laurent, et al.), plus rare designers only the fashion-educated could identify (the Paris haute couture house Callot Soeurs, Charles Frederick Worth, Charles James, Vitaldi Babani, Jacques Doucet, and so on), and gowns donated by a who’s who of Old Philadelphia social register matrons, among them the Drexels, Pews, Biddles, and Cassatts. Fortunately, this fashion goldmine goes on display to the public for the first time starting October 2 in a retrospective, “Immortal Beauty: Highlights from the Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection.”
Its chic and petite curator, Clare Sauro, has been overseeing the 12,000-plus items since 2014. (Sauro herself came to Drexel in 2008 from the Museum at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology.) The entire collection is in the process of being cataloged digitally, but in the meantime, she’s the walking database for its contents, now housed in a sleek, renovated space with museum-grade closets and drawers. Sauro is busy preparing for the show, which features about 75 pieces, but has taken time to show me around while her staff scurries to prepare mannequins and pack and unpack clothes, shoes, and accessories as Sauro decides which items make the cut. We walk down one of the aisles when she suddenly stops: “You’ve got to see this!” She leans down to pull open one of the large metal drawers. With gloved hands, she gently pulls back layers of tissue to reveal a fulllength coral-encrusted lace and raffia gown designed by Hubert de Givenchy in the 1960s for Princess Grace of Monaco. It is a stunner.
“Once I was able to unpack everything, people said, ‘this is really important.’” —Clare Sauro
Thomas Hills Cook, chairman of The Richard C. von Hess Foundation, which is sponsoring the exhibit with a $220,000 grant, had the same reaction to this intricately crafted bright orange gown, adorned with real coral branches, when he saw it two years ago with Drexel President John Fry. “It was so simple but spectacular,” says Cook of the gown. “John Fry invited me to have a look at the collection. I found it fascinating.... I was surprised that I did not really know about this amazing collection.”
The foundation wants to raise the profile of this Drexel treasure. And the fact that Mrs. Richard C. von Hess herself wore couture, favoring Chanel, Schiaparelli, Pauline Trigère, and Halston, makes it a nice fit.
The inception of the university’s sartorial archive came as a result of founder A.J. Drexel’s foresight. In his will, he specified the creation of an endowment to purchase significant textiles and fashion as teaching tools for enrolled students. Many of its earliest donations were from family members. Through the following decades, clothes came in from a variety of donors (directly and indirectly), from philanthropist Lenore Annenberg, actress Greta Garbo, socialite Babe Paley, and even, more recently, Greg Cowper, a curatorial assistant in the entomology department at Drexel University’s Academy of Natural Sciences, who donated the jeans he wore to Woodstock (with original dirt, grass stains, and peace-sign patch intact). Sauro hopes this retrospective will trigger an avalanche of more noteworthy donations. “A.J. Drexel was a visionary,” says Sauro. “I’m still flabbergasted that he left this money in his will to go out and purchase art for the education of his students.”
This embellished gown, from Christian Dior’s 1963 Fall/Winter collection, was a gift from Mrs. Walter Annenberg.
Before Sauro answers my question, “Why show the exhibit now?,” we stop at a drawer and she pulls out a knockout black-and-white, bib-embellished velvet evening mantle by the legendary Charles Frederick Worth. This luxurious jacket, from what is considered to be the first haute couture house in Paris, must have made the rounds at the ritziest society events in its day and is now worth about as much as a small house on the Main Line.
As we inspect the mantle’s rich weave structure, Sauro responds that the collection has gone through a tremendous period of revitalization in the last several years. “It wasn’t until we moved here in 2013 that people said, ‘This is really important,’ because I was finally able to unpack everything. Before, it had all been in a cramped space and you couldn’t bring people through. Now, this has become a highlight on the tour of the building. That got the ball rolling toward this exhibit.” On view October 2–December 12 at the Leonard Pearlstein Gallery, URBN Center Annex, 3401 Filbert st., 215-895-2548