Little known except to connoisseurs—Amy Finkel calls it “one of Philadelphia’s hidden treasures”—the Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection at Drexel University is about to come into the limelight. We spoke to Clare Sauro, its curator and the organizer of its first major exhibition, Immortal Beauty: Highlights from the Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection, which will be on view from October 2 to December 12 at the Leonard Pearlstein Gallery of Drexel’s Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts and Design. Ranging from a fragment of sixteenth-century Italian velvet to a 2012 evening dress by Alexander Wang, the more than seventy-five pieces in the show are a fraction of the fourteen thousand in the collection, which was begun in the late 1890s as an educational resource for Drexel students and renamed for the Foxes last year in honor of their ongoing support. By Eleanor H. Gustafson
What do you think will be most surprising to viewers of the exhibition?
I think the entire exhibition will be a surprise. Most people don’t know we even exist and those who do don’t really know the quantity or the quality of our holdings. I think connoisseurs of antique couture will be excited to see so many rare and unusual examples. We’re showing garments by the early couture houses of Callot Soeurs, Jacques Doucet, and the House of Worth as well as standout ones from the twentieth century—a “Bustle” gown by Charles James (donated by Babe Paley), a coral-encrusted gown worn by Princess Grace of Monaco, and a rare example of the “swinging London” style by Mary Quant. In addition, there are lengths of nineteenth-century printed velveteen in various Renaissance inspired motifs by Thomas Wardle and Company and a large sample of the Honeysuckle pattern fabric by William Morris with the original stamp on the border. These contrast nicely with the laser-cut tyvek curtain by Tord Boontje!
How did you choose what to display from the thousands of items in the collection, and do you have a favorite piece?
The objects were selected to showcase the best of our collection but also for their overwhelming aesthetic value. They’re all my favorites! But if I had to choose one, I would say the teal velvet evening dress by Callot Soeurs, circa 1926. It is heavily embellished with tiny pearls and copper thread embroidery in a quasi-Moorish pattern but is also strikingly modern in its simple construction. It is basically a tube with a scalloped hem!
Among accessories there are shoes by Salvatore Ferragamo and Roger Vivier, and there’s also a Fabergé parasol handle. What can you tell us about that?
The handle is very interesting in that it is still attached to the original silk parasol. Most that come up for auction have been removed from their original context and are collected as examples of the jeweler’s art. I particularly enjoy this parasol because it is a good example of the cosmopolitan nature of high fashion at the turn of the twentieth century—it was purchased by a member of Philadelphia’s Drexel family at a store in Mexico City that specialized in Parisian imports.
When the show closes, what opportunities will be available to see the collection?
Unfortunately, for the most part we can only accommodate students and scholars, and only by appointment. But we’ve also started some programming (Fashion Fridays and Style Saturdays) that will resume after the exhibition closes as a way of sharing our holdings with the public. For further information visit the website: drexel.edu/westphal/resources/FHCC.
From top to bottom: Gown by Charles James; shoes by Salvatore Ferragamo; Faberge parasol handle; velvet evening dress by Callot Soeurs.