Out of the closet - at last

The galleries, along with a spanking-new study room and a high-tech apparel conservation center, can help establish Philadelphia as a fashion destination beyond the realm of retail.

Posted: September 09, 2007

The Philadelphia Museum of Art's costume and textiles collection - more than 30,000 pieces of clothing, accessories and fabrics - is impressive, ranking right up there with those housed in New York and Los Angeles art museums. But with only 400 square feet of gallery space, its curators have never had enough room to show it off.

That will change this week when the much-anticipated Ruth and Raymond G. Perelman Building opens. The department's inaugural exhibition, "A Passion for Perfection," will debut Saturday in the 2,000-square-foot, royal-blue Joan Spain Gallery for Costume and Textiles. It will include nearly 50 pieces from ultra-high-end Philadelphia-bred designers Gustave Tassell, James Galanos and Ralph Rucci.

Piling on the riches, in November a 1,200-square-foot study gallery will open, highlighting the museum's most recent costume and textile acquisitions.

"Oh yes, we are excited!" said Dilys Blum, curator of the department. "It means we can borrow exhibitions. We can get things out we've been collecting for years. We can create our own shows. We can do all kinds of things on a permanent basis!"

The costume and textiles expansion to the lavish new ground-floor gallery, plus an entire upper floor in a wing of the Perelman building, is about much more than increased display space.

The galleries, along with a spanking-new study room and a high-tech apparel conservation center, can potentially help Philadelphia establish itself as a fashion destination beyond the realm of retail. The city has a shot at becoming a fashion-study resource, where understanding the roots of style involves serious scholarship and well-constructed clothes are the equivalent of high art.

"We wanted people to have access to collections that have been packed away for years," said Dorrance Hill Hamilton, whose $5 million gift helped underwrite the new Dorrance Hill Hamilton Center of Costume, Textiles and Design. "I was always startled with how small a space the fashion and fabrics area had in the museum."

Fashion is so much a part of our current culture that we've become slightly obsessed with it. There are numerous fashion-related TV programs, from how-to-dress reality shows to the catty fashion-mag drama series Ugly Betty. Fashion departments at universities have seen a spike in enrollment. Fashion-based museum shows have been going strong nationwide and have done well locally, too.

In 1997, the Philadelphia Museum of Art presented "Best Dressed: 250 Years of Style" which garnered national attention and more than 120,000 visitors. Six years later, "Shocking! The Fashion and Style of Elsa Schiaparelli" drew 83,000.

The ornate yet demure gown worn by Philadelphia-born Grace Kelly when she married Prince Albert of Monaco in 1956 is one of the items museum-goers most often ask to see.

"People love clothes!" Blum said "Going to an exhibit is the next best thing to shopping - maybe it even outdoes shopping, because it's total fantasy."

The Philadelphia Museum of Art's costume and textiles collection goes back to the city's 1876 Centennial Exposition. The museum officially opened a Department of Textiles, Embroidery and Lace in 1893. Early collections included velvets, brocades and damasks from 15th-century aristocrats in Italy, Spain and France.

While the museum did collect some colonial apparel, it wasn't until 1947 that the first costume galleries were opened under the sponsorship of the Philadelphia Fashion Group, designers and retailers promoting American design.

At the time, French couturiers such as Christian Dior and Pierre Balmain dominated the world fashion scene. The American fashion community's desire to study and duplicate Parisian style was the genesis of the movement to collect contemporary fashion at museums like Philadelphia's.

Over the years, the museum's holding of quilts and wall tapestries has been joined by, among many other things, a collection of ornate 20th-century millinery and the work of such contemporary designers as Jean Paul Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood, and Gianni Versace.

Curators say they are always seeking acquisitions based on design merit, not on who wore them.

"Our mission is to collect clothing as an art form," said H. Kristina Haugland, associate curator of costume and textiles.

"We collect differently than, for instance, a historical society. We are looking for clothing that wasn't created to be art, necessarily, but through design and construction it became an aesthetic statement."

For years, the only place to display examples from this vast collection has been a walk-in-closet-sized room tucked behind European paintings and decorative arts.

These days, five headless mannequins stand in that diminutive space, dressed in flowing 18th-century silk gowns and enclosed in a glass case; on the wall are woven silks from the same era.

Yet in the museum staff's eyes, the true fabulousness of the expansion is as much about storage and conservation space as it is about display. As any fashionista will tell you, one can have great clothes, but without room to store them and try them on, life can be trying.

Until now, thousands of vintage clothing and textile items were stored in a cramped warren of rooms comprising 3,500 square feet and outfitted with hanging racks and drawers built in the mid-1970s.

There was almost no room for conservation. Conservators shared space with those who dressed the mannequins. Working with the chemicals used for cleaning, dyeing and other preservation processes was a chore. Scholars and visitors who wanted to study the museum's fashion collection had to be crammed into this space as well. The Perelman's new Hamilton Center triples conservation, storage and study space.

The off-white, 7,600-square-foot storage system is designed to be compact, allowing conservators to fit more pieces in less space. Haugland said the six-member staff, plus grant-funded conservators and technicians, spent nearly five years rehousing objects in preparation for the move. Hanging garments got new hangers and supports and many pieces were boxed as needed. Hats, jewelry and other accessories were placed on purpose-built mounts, and textiles were rolled on acid-free tubes.

In addition to the improved storage facilities, conservator Sara Reiter is looking forward to the new lab, with its fume hood and huge flexible exhaust tubes - called trunks - that she plans to use to fumigate gifts to the museum that have been preserved in mothballs.

"I'll be able to use solvents and other chemicals to reduce stains, and eliminate creases in pieces for exhibits," Reiter said. "There are a lot of adhesive treatments we want to use that just aren't safe [in the old space]. Now we can use them."

For those who truly appreciate the art and architecture of fashion, "A Passion for Perfection" is a harbinger of what to expect from the relocated department.

The clothing - mod suiting from 1950s-through-1970s designer Tassell, metallic gowns from 1950s- through-1980s Galanos, and rich-hued sable suits from present-day Rucci - displays the details of fashion at its best.

At the center of the exhibition is a grouping of little black dresses from all three designers (no retrospective is complete without them), and Rucci's flowing, painted strapless autumn gown - inspired by Cy Twombly's "Four Seasons" series of paintings - is sure to grab viewers' attention.

It's a crisp, accessible space in which to see and appreciate classic designs. Stitching, cuffs, appliqu├ęs - all these details can be enjoyed, as nothing separates the viewers from the clothes.

"Fashion is a part of our lives," said Joan Spain, who, with her husband, Bernard, donated $1 million to the main gallery. "People love to see retrospectives of famous designers the same way they like to see movie stars and famous people. . . . This can't help but bring more people to the museum."

Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at ewellington@phillynews.com or 215-854-2704. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/elizabethwellington.

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