Explore the rich sartorial legacy of a city that has played a significant role in the development of American fashion.

Philadelphia In Style: A Century of Fashion
Philadelphia In Style: A Century of Fashion from the Robert & Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection, Drexel University is a celebration of the rich sartorial legacy of a city that has played a significant role in the development of American fashion. Nineteenth century Philadelphia was a well-established center of textile manufacturing and home to several successful women's magazines, such as the Ladies Home Journal that served to establish Philadelphia as an authority of fashion and taste.  Philadelphia was also instrumental to the development of modern consumer culture due to the marketing innovations of famed retailers John Wanamaker and Strawbridge & Clothier that continued well into the twentieth century.  Philadelphia In Style chronicles a century of style with garments and accessories that were either worn, made, or sold in Philadelphia.
1896 - 1910
Philadelphia at the start of the twentieth century was a city of great wealth and sophistication.  Specialty shops and large emporiums on Chestnut Street catered to the "carriage trade" with a variety of imported and domestic items, and rivaled those of Paris and London.  Chestnut and neighboring Walnut Street, had a cluster of dressmakers, tailors, and milliners that provided custom-made wardrobes for their fashionable clientele.  The large department stores, located on Market Street, tempted consumers with a wide variety of ready-made goods and were gaining acceptance with the fashionable elite.  The best known of these department stores was John Wanamaker's, which served as a national model for their innovative approach to market, novelty, and high style. Strawbridge & Clothier was the nearest rival to John Wanamaker, and was known for their emphasis on quality and customer service in keeping with the Quaker values of their founders. Other prominent department stores on Market Street were Lit Brothers, Gimbel Brothers, and N. Snellenburg & Company.

Wedding Gown
October, 1896

Miss Adelia Lawrence Croft wore this gown to what the Times described as "a very pink and pretty wedding." The gown itself was created by Mrs. G. W. Wright, a prominent Philadelphia dressmaker whose name is stamped in gold on the interior petersham waist tape.

Dinner Dress

This dress was created by George G. Leupold, a Philadelphia Dressmaker located on Chestnut Street. It was designed with two bodices - one for day and one for dinner. Nineteenth century etiquette demanded a change of clothes for every imaginable activity and these interchangeable bodices developed to make this practice slightly less arduous.

1910 - 1928
On the even of the First World War, fashion was struggling to break from the traditions of the past.  Department stores emphasized novelty and luxury with innovations such as fashion shows, concerts, restaurants, and parades.  Throughout the 1920's, the industry was based largely on the style dictates of the established French Couture.  These prestigious couturiers had two audiences - the elite clientele that purchased their wardrobes directly from the couture house, and the buyers from international department stores, specialty shops, and ready to wear manufacturers.  John Wanamaker was an early advocate of Parisian fashions and was one of the first department stores to hold promotional fashion shows.

c. 1915

Bonwit Teller opened their Philadelphia store at 17th and Chestnut Streets in 1909, where they would remain for more than 80 years. Although the store was not original to Philadelphia, the store was quickly embraced by Philadelphians. Bonwit Teller specialized in high-end women's apparel and was known for their high quality merchandise.

Afternoon Dress
c. 1925

This afternoon dress is the work of an anonymous dressmaker working in Philadelphia. The simple tubular styling of the 1920's allowed for the efficient and relatively inexpensive mass production of ready to wear, which was virtually indistinguishable from custom-made examples. Consequently, traditional custom dressmaking was losing cachet with consumers.

J. M. Gown Shop
J.M. Gown Shop was a Philadelphia-based dressmaking establishment that operated from 1916 to 1935, a period when many women abandoned traditional dressmaking for ready to wear garments. The Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection is fortunate to have many of their original design sketches and other archival materials.
1928 - 1940
The economic collapse of 1929 had a lasting effect on American fashion. By 1931, French imports had dropped by 40 percent as department stores, specialty shops, and manufacturers turned to domestic talent to produce new styles.  Many older stores were unable to keep afloat and were forced to close.  Specialty stores like Nan Duskin and Sophy Curson, which had opened just prior to the stock market crash, defied the odds by surviving the Great Depression - a testament to the power of specialization and knowing your customer.  Anticipating an important migration that would take place in the later 1940's, Strawbridge & Clothier opened branches in the "streetcar suburbs" of Ardmore and Jenkintown.  In 1939, the Paris couture was cut off from the United States with the outbreak of the Second World War, and American designers finally had their moment to step out of the shadows of anonymity.

Evening Gown

Williamina Meyer de Schauensee, wife of the well-known Philadelphia ornithologist Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee, was known for her model figure and couture wardrobe by designers such as Jeanne Lanvin and Elsa Schiaparelli. Like many fashionable Philadelphians, she turned to American designers and retailers after the fall of Paris in 1939.

Wedding Dress

This wedding dress was purchased at Bonwit Teller Philadelphia in 1940 and donated sixty years later in its original silver gilt box. It displays a creative melding of art deco and Victoriana typically seen in the late 1930's.

1942 - 1955
During the Second World War, American designers such as Claire McCardell, Gilbert Adrian, and Traina-Norell were promoted enthusiastically by leading department stores and specialty shops. After the war, French designers returned to American markets, but would have to compete with American ready-to-wear.  In 1947, French courturier Christian Dior introduced what would be nicknamed the "New Look," a collection centered on full skirts and tiny waists that rejected the broad shoulders and short skirts of the 1940's, and would influence the fashions of the coming decade. By the late 1940's, most department stores were following the early lead of Strawbridge & Clothier and expanding into the suburbs with branches that offered convenient locations and ample parking.  This expansion was essential to the continued prosperity of the department stores, but also signaled a change in shopping habits that would eventually destroy the grand department stores of Market Street.

c. 1944

Gilbert Adrian's tailored suits were considered the epitome of wartime chic. The first of several Hollywood names to branch into high fashion. Adrian launched his business with the backing of influential retailers, including Nan Duskin in Philadelphia, who were given the exclusive right to sell Adrian Originals in their city.

Day Ensemble

Nan Duskin exerted a powerful influence on American designers. A fierce advocate of American fashion, she often commissioned items such as this ensemble which bears the label "Irene for Nan Duskin." This is likely to refer to the unique textile of the coat, woven at the North Philadelphia Mill of textile designer Pola Stout.

Philadelphia-born Grace Kelly remains an icon of all-American beauty and style; "the golden girl in the shirtwaist dress." In 1955, she topped the best-dressed lists for her understated elegance. in the following year, she announced her engagement to Monaco's Prince Ranier wearing a remarkably similar dress to this model by Traina-Norell.

1956 - 1968
The 1950's and 1960's were a period of change for Philadelphia area retailers. Many of the large department stores continued their suburban expansion with branch stores, and "anchor stores" in the newly developed shopping malls. Strawbridge & Clothier would dominate mall expansion during this period, with an uncanny ability to assess market demand and consumer trends.  Fashion in this period was increasingly youthful with simple lines and bright colors replacing the staid refinement of the immediate postwar period. These changes reflected the preferences of a new generation that favored high-end ready-to-wear over traditional couture that required numerous fittings. New boutiques, such as Knit Wit, also emerged to capture these younger shoppers.

This couture gown by Pierre Balmain, with its tiny waist and full skirt, is a typical example of the evening fashions of the 1950's. Couture rebounded in the postwar period with French designers like Christian Dior, Gabrielle Chanel, and Cristobal Balenciaga setting the tone.

Evening Dress
c. 1966

Philadelphia-born designer James Galanos is widely acknowledged as one of the foremost couturiers of the twentieth century. He was known for his superb materials, impeccable construction, and daring good taste.

1968 - 1979
By the 1970's, many older retailers struggled to remain economically viable, and many once prominent names, such as Lit Brothers and The Blum Store, closed their doors forever. Larger stores like John Wanamaker and Strawbridge & Clothier relied on the profits from their successful suburban branches, and even Nan Duskin had acquired locations in Strafford and Haverford in the early 1970's. In 1977, the Gallery, the first urban shopping mall in Philadelphia opened, in an attempt to revitalize Center City shopping.

c. 1974

By this time, many of the older family-owned stores had been bought by larger retail conglomerates. Central buying ensured stores across the country carried similar, if not the same, merchandise. This Halston dress, purchased at Saks Fifth Avenue, is identical to others available in other stores through the country

Evening Dress

In 1924, John Wanamaker purchased The Tribout Shop, a genuine Parisian store, and imported it in its entirety. For the next fifty years, the shop specialized in expensive and exclusive French imports, but by the 1970's carried the best of international high style such as this silk dress by Oscar de la Renta.

1980 - 1995
The 1980's saw a series of mergers and acquisitions that eventually led to the end of the many historically important stores. Gimbels was the first to close in 1987, followed shortly after by Bonwit Teller, Nan Duskin, and John Wanamaker.  Strawbridge & Clothier, with their astute assessment of their customers, held on the longest and remained open until 2006, when it was absorbed by Macy's. The John Wanamker store, complete with its famous bronze eagle, and organ from the St. Louis World's Fair, still stands on Market Street, and has been designated a National Historic Landmark.  The eagle, once the symbol of the great retailer, remains a popular tourist attraction and a monument to the generations of Philadelphia shoppers who told each other to "Meet me at the Eagle."

Day Dress
c. 1980

Albert Nipon was a Philadelphia-based manufacturer who dominated the dress market during the early 1980's. Headed by husband and wife Albert and Pearl Nipon, the pair eventually built a $60 million a year fashion empire. Albert cited his wife as the secret to their success - "She has a feel for what young career women would like their clothes to be."

Credit Card Case with Department Store Credit Cards
c. 1980

These credit cards represent the variety of Philadelphia retailers a fashionable woman was able to choose from up through the 1980's. All of these stores are now defunct.

Evening Dress
c. 1993

Mary McFadden was known for opulent styles inspired by historic and non-western dress. This gown is an excellent example of her regal glamour and was worn by Bonnie B. Freundlich, wife of Richard L. Freundlich, co-owner of Nan Duskin. As such, she has access to the very best of contemporary fashion.

Credits: Story

Philadelphia in Style: A Century of Fashion from the Robert & Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection was a collaborative exhibition mounted by the Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection and the James A. Michener Art Museum in March 2016.

Co-curated by Clare Sauro, Curator of Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection, Drexel University, Kirsten M. Jensen, Ph.D., Gerry & Marguerite Lenfest Chief Curator, and Louise Feder, Assistant Curator

Photography by Michael J. Shepherd

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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