Immortal Beauty: Fashion history at Drexel’s Pearlstein Gallery

Dressing for (a show of) success

Drexel University has maintained a collection of garments and fashion accessories almost since its founding, but only now, a century and a quarter later, can the general public see some special items from that collection. The debut show gets its title, Immortal Beauty, from remarks by Drexel’s first president, James MacAlister, at the institute’s 1891 dedication: “The immortal beauty which Athens and Florence have bequeathed to the world will be made to sweeten the daily toil of the bread-winner.”

"Just" a suit: Gilbert Adrian suit, c. 1947. FHCC purchase. (Photo by Michael J. Shepherd)

The clothing, however, doesn’t represent the lives of those daily toilers and breadwinners: Most of the garments on display are special-occasion clothing, since that, not day-to-day garb, is what people treasure and preserve. The specificity of what those occasions were serves to illuminate the changes in women’s lives since the Civil War (the main time frame of the exhibit).

In the late 19th and early 20th century, for instance, outfits were divided not only between daywear and evening wear, as they still are today, but also according to different times of day. A day dress (jacket and skirt with a draped overlayer and paneled underlayer, all in a mix of a brown foulard print and solid black) is shown next to a much fancier afternoon dress (orange satin brocade in a flowered design, set off by solid-color satin sleeves with deep velvet cuffs and a velvet mock turtleneck, all in the same shade of orange). Clearly only women of leisure, treated as adornments themselves, could arrange their lives around the need to change outfits several times a day.

Women at the turn of the last century dressed not just for the specific time of day, but for the activity. For instance, there are two walking suits. The 1905 version (black trimmed with black braid on the jacket) has an ankle-length skirt; by 1915 (dark purple velvet trimmed in maroon satin), the skirt had risen to mid-calf, allowing, presumably, a brisker pace.

Postwar changes

Hattie Carnegie cocktail suit, Fall/Winter 1949-1950. Gift of Mrs. Walter Annenberg. (Photo by Michael J. Shepherd)
Hattie Carnegie cocktail suit, Fall/Winter 1949-1950. Gift of Mrs. Walter Annenberg. (Photo by Michael J. Shepherd)

After World War II, daytime suits were much simpler — the only adornment in Adrian’s sharply cut black checked suit (1947) is meticulously placed gussets separating checks in different scales — but evening looks continued to be elaborate and continued to include garment categories rarely seen today. Hattie Carnegie is represented with a 1949-1950 cocktail suit (a simple black suit with beaded embroidery on the collar and peplum), and Emilio Schuberth by a c. 1960 evening coat (elaborate beading in green and turquoise over peach, with oversized black lapels).

These garments mark the beginning of the types of fashion I remember personally. My mother, born in 1917, used to wear cocktail dresses as part of her life as the stay-at-home wife of a corporate executive; they disappeared from her wardrobe with the changes in her life following her reentry to the workforce in the late ’60s. I, born in 1954, have never owned one, perhaps because I have avoided both corporate jobs and a corporate spouse.

Some of my friends, I have learned, do own one or more cocktail dresses, even today. Most of these women are younger than I — one 25-year-old says, “My generation seems to have this weird longing for ’50s fashion and styles. But we're not really interested in the culture of the time. Despite the peaceful simplicity of it, there were a lot of holes in women's rights.”

Hubert de Givenchy evening dress, c. 1964. Gift of Her Serene Highness, Princess Grace of Monaco. (Photo by Michael J. Shepherd)
Hubert de Givenchy evening dress, c. 1964. Gift of Her Serene Highness, Princess Grace of Monaco. (Photo by Michael J. Shepherd)

Conspicuous consumption by proxy

Indeed. The decade before Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique sparked the modern women’s movement was the last one when women’s roles in this country were almost exclusively defined by their relationships to men. Thus, evening wear is very much about presenting these women in adornment appropriate to such appendages — conspicuous consumption by proxy. (It’s telling that the midcentury array in the current exhibit also includes a 1964 Givenchy-designed gown from Princess Grace and a 1948 Charles James gown from Mrs. William S. [Babe] Paley — along with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis probably the ultimate trophy wives of that era.)

I’m not going to get up on my feminist high horse about the sociocultural significance of the clothes, though — as a 30-year Vogue subscriber and a diligent Project Runway viewer (even now, in its later, lesser seasons), I mostly wandered through the display whimpering with delight at the beauty of the clothes themselves.


For Samantha Maldonado’s WNWN preview of this show, including a history of the collection, click here.

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