What's in Drexel's closets? Timeless textile treasures

A men's waistcoat from 1757 is the oldest piece in the Drexel collection.
A men's waistcoat from 1757 is the oldest piece in the Drexel collection. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 02, 2013

There are 12,000 pieces in Drexel University's Historic Costume Collection, but curator Clare Sauro's eyes twinkle like metallic threads when she explains why a particular light blue, crushed-velvet sheath from the 1920s is ageless and of-the-moment awesome.

"It's from the Callot Soeurs," Sauro said, holding the 87-year-old textile delicately between white-gloved fingers.

She's referring to four French sisters considered among the earliest dressmakers to incorporate mixed media into their frocks of velvet, lace, and ribbons. Not to mention, Sauro said, that it has Asian and medieval influences - so little was globally inspired back then.

"If you look at the metallic threading, you would expect it to be gold," Sauro said, nearly giddy. "But this is copper," and that makes it avant-garde for its time, she explained.

With last month's opening of the university's $80 million industrial warehouse-style URBN Center came the unofficial debut of the costume collection's new digs.

Walking into the 3,000-square-foot space is like entering a chilly (the clothes need to be kept at 65 degrees), sterile science lab. Curators are required to wear gloves. Absolutely no pens allowed. The 10-foot-tall, compact-storage units look more like bank vaults than closets.

Yet the moment Sauro opens one of the massive units filled with 256 years of dresses, cloaks, undergarments, hats, gloves, shoes, and purses, the space comes alive. It's a tweed, glitter-filled dream come true for vintage shoppers.

The oldest piece, a man's waistcoat, dates to 1757; the most recent acquisition is a pair of Giuseppe Zanotti booties.

In between are a bevy of high-style artifacts: romantic day dresses from the 1850s, candy-colored wool coats from the 1960s courtesy of Norman Norell.

There are Pucci skirts, Chanel suits, and cocktail dresses à la Hubert de Givenchy. Bohemian looks from the 1970s give way to 1980s glitz. And a mint green Chanel miniskirt and jacket is very Heather Locklear 1990s.

Drawers are filled with accessories: satin scarves, T-strap shoes, little bags - it's endless.

"It's really nice when you can see the pieces chronologically," Sauro said. "You can see the important color palettes of the time and the evolution of the silhouettes."

My favorite of the group: a scarlet cocktail dress with oversize psychedelic flowers, circa 1960.

Far out.

The university spent about $850,000 on the high-tech storage space, according to Allen Sabinson, dean of the university's Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts and Design. The idea, he said, is to pull from the grouping for fashion exhibitions and to be a go-to research facility for couture, ready-to-wear, and costume designers.

The collection was started in the 1890s by Drexel's founder, A.J. Drexel. Among the early inclusions are the teeny-waisted flapper dresses that belonged to his granddaughter, Amanda Drexel Fell Cassatt.

Over the years, Sauro said, graduates and friends of the university - typically with enough room to store spare wardrobes in country houses - donated their pieces.

While there is a wealth of items from the turn of the 20th century to the 1930s, there is a dearth in the 1930 and 1940s, when the Great Depression and World War II forced even the rich to wear their clothing until it was close to threadbare.

The collection is pretty flush with clothes from the 1960s to now, which gives a great fashion chronology of women's climb up the corporate ladder.

"These pieces are valuable parts of American history," said Amy Finkel, an antiques collector and friend of the university, whose donations include several pieces from the 1980s.

Sauro - the keeper of the collection - came to Drexel in 2008 from New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, where she worked as an associate curator for its historic collection.

Her father was a regional sales manager with a passion for aviation history, and her mother was a facilities manager for IBM.

"I think that's why I'm not afraid to manage big spaces," Sauro said.

Or big thoughts. When it comes to style history, Sauro is a walking encyclopedia, an expert in everything from the history of pockets to the origins of lace. Certainly, it's a good time to be in the vintage costume business, what with the pop-culture love affair with all things '20s and midcentury. But what does Sauro think of all that?

"I stopped watching Downton Abbey because the clothing was just wrong," Sauro said. Although the time period was correct, hemlines and waistlines were off; she may have even seen some Spandex gloves. "It's too early to comment on The Great Gatsby movie, but Mad Men got it right."

And with a collection spanning two centuries under her care, I'm pretty sure I believe her.


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

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