Fashion unbound

A Drexel exhibit presents 1911 to 1919 as the defining decade for women's clothing, when styles relaxed and skin began to appear.

Posted: April 12, 2011

Before the 20th century, women's clothing was anything but freeing. Cinched in corsets with blouses that buttoned up their necks, women could stir up a scandal if their skirts didn't graze the floor.

Talk about being limited by fashion.

Come the early 1900s, designers began to loosen up silhouettes, and 10 years into the new century, women's daywear was teeming with dropped waists, V-necks, and midcalf to ankle-length skirts.

"The teens were one of the most radical periods for women's fashion," said Clare Sauro, curator of Drexel University's historic costume collection. "This is probably the most exciting decade ... because it helped set the stage for modern fashion with our emphasis on the natural body and self-expression."

In honor of Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts' nod to 1910-20 Paris, Drexel University is hosting a quaint yet informative style exhibition focusing on that revolutionary period: "Brave New World: Fashion & Freedom, 1911-1919."

The show, which is Sauro's first curated exhibition since she arrived at the university 21/2 years ago, opened with a high tea and private reception last week and will run through May 7.

In addition to Drexel's well-respected high-fashion faculty, two of the area's renowned curators attended the opening: Kristina Haugland and Dilys Blum, both from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Blum this year curated "Roberto Capucci: Art Into Fashion," the Art Museum's first major costume exhibition since 2004.)

"It's a charming exhibition," Blum said of Sauro's work, " . . . a great overview of the impact of World War I on fashion."

Drawing from Drexel's more than 10,000-piece permanent collection of accessories and apparel, the exhibit, housed in the Leonard Pearlstein Gallery, includes 14 to-die-for dresses that are representative of the era but actually could be considered current today. Think midcalf, pleated skirts; floral prints; and a mix of sheer fabrics with satins, velvets, and furs. Drexel also purchased a muted peach, tubular pleated dress with olive negligee by Italian designer Mariano Fortuny for the show.

Presented in chronological order, "Brave New World" starts with accessories like an ornate hair comb that Sauro describes as "the last gasp of late-19th-century luxury in fashion," several pairs of closed-toe shoes with kitten heels, and an ornamented gauntlet glove that flares before the elbow.

You'll also see some clothes from one of the costume collection's major benefactors. The granddaughter of Drexel University founder A.J. Drexel, Amanda "Minnie" Drexel Fell Cassatt - with a waist size that ranged from 19 to 21 inches - has six "mini" pieces on display, including a gold lamé evening gown with a sheer corsage, high waist, and deep purple floral sash. It's a dreamy specimen to any vintage clothing connoisseur.

The last piece in the grouping is a 1919 showstopper, and also one of Cassatt's gifts: an ivory and gold dress heavily adorned with crystal and iridescent beads featuring a hot pink sash and a cleavage-baring neckline. The dress is a copy of a French couture garment produced by Henri Bendel of New York-based specialty store Bendel's.

"The fact that it's so bare makes it a very high-fashion dress," Sauro said. "Most people would cover it up a bit, but this is identical to what you would see in the couture houses at the time."

"Brave New World" also manages to include items fashioned in Philadelphia during the early 1900s. A fitted black suit with purple and white trim made by Philadelphia tailor Dietmann shows prominently, and a delicate black lace cap-sleeve dress with beautiful star embroidery by dressmaker Neill, circa 1916-17, is worth a double take.

As an extension of "Brave New World," Drexel will present a talk Thursday on 1920s-era fashion designer Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon, who produced women's apparel under the label Lucile and was one of the first to employ modern-day public relations skills to selling her line.

That discussion - "Beyond Romanticism: The Art, Commerce, and Modernity of Lucile" - is at 7 p.m. in Nesbitt Hall, 3215 Market St. Admission is free. For information, call 215-895-1029 or go to

For additional coverage of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, go to

Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or Follow her on Twitter at ewellingtonphl.


comments powered by Disqus