Philadelphia is known as a city of firsts for many things. While perhaps New York may lay claim to current day title of the Fashion Capital of the Country, Philadelphia can safely lay claim to a great many first innovations, taste makers and talent in the fashion industry. As the second largest English speaking city (outside of London) at the time of the American Revolution, there would have been a great many very fashionable ladies in Colonial Philadelphia dressed in dresses of the latest styles and fabrics from England and France. Continuing over a hundred years later and throughout the 20th century, Philadelphians had established their own fashion innovations including magazines like the Lady’s Home Journal, the Great Department Stores like John Wanamaker and Strawbridge & Clothier as well as taste makers like Nan Duskin that introduced Philadelphia to talent from around the world. This is all part of the story, Philadelphia In Style, A Century of Fashion, an exhibit that covers the period from 1896 until approximately 1994 tells. The exhibit is currently taking place at the James A. Michener Art Museum (in charming Doylestown, Bucks County) in collaboration with the Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection of Drexel University.
There are approximately 30 dressed forms, along with accessories and other related fashion items. The exhibit begins with some fashionable day dresses an upper class women might have worn at the end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th century as well as evening wear. There is a delightful Mauve colored, flower festooned Callot Soeurs evening dress from 1916-17 that shows a hint of where fashion would be headed in the next decade. There is day wear/suiting from the 1940s/50s. The exhibit discusses the impact and innovation that the larger department stores such as Strawbridges and Wanamakers had on bringing French fashion and ready to wear back home and introducing the concept of “off the rack” even to its more affluent clientele.
There are the stories of the taste makers like Nan Duskin who introduced a plethora of new names and talented designers to Philadelphians. There are shoes, and hats and scarves and a pile of hat boxes that made me wonder about what had been in them and who got to wear them. I found the display of two wedding dresses- separated by over four decades poignant; a visual testimony to the continuation of tradition and its transformation. All and all it is always a treat to look at lovely clothing and enjoying its charm and craftsmanship.
Although I had specifically come to the museum for this exhibit, it has been some time since I’d last been there, which is a great shame for me. The Michener is a lovely and architecturally interesting (having been partially built in a former 19th century prison) museum with 3,500 square feet of public gallery space, an interesting outdoor sculpture area and it holds a well regarded collection of Pennsylvanian Impressionists. Lovely surrounding Bucks County has provided inspiration as well as a home to a wide variety of artists some visual -whose works can be seen here, some literary like the author for whom the museum is named as well as Pearl S Buck and many others from different artistic arenas. (If you get the chance, this area is a lovely day trip from Philadelphia or the surrounding area- you can see why it’s attracted so many artists to its landscape.)
A wonderful and serendipitous surprise that I had remembered vaguely but not nearly clearly enough, was the stunning Nakashima Reading Room. George Nakashima was born in Spokane, Washington in 1905 and died in New Hope in 1990, where he had made his home, along with his studio and workshop He received a Masters in Architecture from MIT. He was one of the most internationally known and recognized woodworkers of his time and combined European modernism with traditional Japanese technique imbued with Eastern Religious Philosophy. His daughter Mira, continued his philosophy of wood working and craftsmanship and installed this reading room… Simply stunning … the wood furnishing, the room is in harmony and definitely fulfill Nakashima’s philosophy of “the tree having a second life.”
Philadelphia in Style, A Century of Fashion, from the Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection, Drexel University (exhibit now through June 26, 2016
James A. Michener Art Museum – 138 South Pine Street, Doylestown, PA 18901