Small Collections and Oh, What They Can Do.

One of the best things about working for Universities with a Fashion/Textile Programs, is that there is usually a collection housed at the University for the benefit of students and faculty.  The value of a collection of this type is not to be understated.  They allow students hands on research that is more difficult to access at a larger collection.  It is also easier for independent costume historians to make connections to the staff and their resources (usually).  Just getting to handle the artifacts is the real excitement.

For example in the Design Center at Philadelphia University is a wonderful Charles James suit.  Charles James (July 1906-September 23, 1978) is one of my favorite designers because of the quality of his work and his design aesthetic.  While his ball gowns are outstanding (and can stand up on their own without a woman in side them) it is his day wear that really stands out for me.  It shows all the quality of the evening wear but is simpler and allows the design to stand out without being overwhelmed with decoration.  It becomes about the cut and fit of the garment.  The lack of decoration allows for no flaws.  Most of his evening gowns are all about cut and fit but some are highly decorated too.

This suit in particular is a 1950’s suit in a lovely dusty purple/mauve.  It has a jacket and a variation on a pencil skirt.  I was able to sketch and photograph it a few semesters ago.  I am sharing the sketches only because of copyright (I’m sure you understand) and so you will have to use your imagination about the color.

But this post is meant to highlight the small collections housed at design schools and so I digress. I have often assigned my students projects that uses the collections.  One example is to pick and artifact and research it.  Who made it?  Who used it and what for?  How was it made? and so on.  I sometimes think that these collections are under appreciated while the students are in the program and missed sorely when they are done.  But they can also be used by scholars outside the University (usually).  You would be surprised by the range these collections have, from Inca feather work to modern designers.

I should also point out that the Design Center at Philadelphia University has an outstanding exhibit of lace (Lace in Translation) showing right now.  It will be up through April of this year.  It shows lace in a variety of historic and artistic uses including a spectacular chain link fence that has a large scale lace pattern woven into it.  The result is that the utilitarian image of the chain link fence is transformed into a work of art.  I hope you will take the time to visit the show (or at least the website).  You have no excuse if your local.  Do visit the website before the Design Center as hours are sometimes limited at any small collection.

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