Museum of the Month – Drexel Historic Costume Collection

Name of Museum: The Drexel Historic Costume Collection (DHCC)

Type of museum: Teaching/research collection
Location: Drexel University, Philadelphia PA
Admission cost: free
Hours of operation: M-F, 9-3 (mini-exhibitions), larger exhibitions TBD, please contact the DHCC for more information about upcoming exhibitions
Museum contact information: dhcc@drexel.edu

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Shoes in storage at the DHCC. Courtesy of the Drexel Historic Costume Collection, Drexel University.

Q: Can you introduce yourself and what do you do at the museum?

A:  Clare Sauro, curator of the Drexel Historic Costume Collection (DHCC) at Drexel University. I am the only full-time employee of the DHCC so I function as director, collections manager, and registrar as well! Before I arrived at the DHCC, I worked at the Museum at FIT in a variety of roles.

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Clare Sauro with an evening dress designed by Givenchy and donated to the DHCC by Princess Grace of Monaco. The entire dress is embroidered with genuine coral branches that make a delightful tinkling sound when moved. Courtesy of the Drexel Historic Costume Collection, Drexel University.

Q: Can you tell me a little bit more about your museum? 

A: The DHCC grew out of a group of fine and decorative arts purchased by A.J. Drexel in the 1890s when the Drexel Institute was founded. Since we began collecting such a long time ago, we have some really fine and unusual objects that came in before people put much value on historic costumes and textiles. We are primarily a research collection (having no real display area) but are blessed with many museum-quality objects. We have something for everyone here- a group of late Renaissance velvets, a maternity corset, and two Charles James gowns worn by Babe Paley!

Clare Sauro gives a tour of the new Drexel Historic Costume Collection storage facility. Courtesy of the Drexel Historic Costume Collection, Drexel University.

Q: What is your day-to-day job like? What’s the best part of your job?

A: No day is the same around here but I can always count on a steady flow of research requests and donation queries. I also teach History of Costume to the Drexel students twice a week. I like doing a little bit of everything and am never bored!

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Clare Sauro using the DHCC at an educational seminar about 1920s fashion. Courtesy of the Drexel Historic Costume Collection, Drexel University.

Q: What are some of the upcoming programs/exhibits your museum is doing?

A: I am in the midst of planning the first large-scale exhibition of the DHCC complete with a fully illustrated catalogue. Pending funding (writing grants!) it will serve to introduce the DHCC to a wider audience and focus on some of the highlights of the collection.

Q: What would the museum do if it had more funding?

A:  We are in dire need of an inventory- I don’t even know how many objects we have! When I arrived in 2008 the DHCC was thought to have about 7,000 objects- I now believe it is at least 12,000. I would love to hire a full-time collections manager to supervise this project and get the collection into a fully searchable database.

Q: What is one of your favorite objects in the collection? Why did you pick it?

A: My “favorite” object is not really my favorite (I have so many- don’t make me choose!) but an object from my favorite donor. Amanda “Minnie” Drexel Fell Cassatt was the granddaughter of Drexel University’s founder and had exceptional taste. Her garments range from 1909-1930 and are a veritable treasure trove of important French couture houses from the period- Worth, Doucet, Chanel, Cheruit, Lelong, and Callot Soeurs. When she did not travel to Paris she shopped at the most exclusive ateliers and department stores- Henri Bendel, John Wanamaker, and Lucile.

This Doucet walking suit dates from right around 1914 and is a rare example of French couture on the cusp of WWI.  What is really compelling about Minnie is the consistent style of her garments- she was a woman who knew what she liked and what worked for her. She preferred a color palette of soft greens, blues and corals and had a taste for metallic lace and orientalism. When she did wear deeper colors, she chose something like the claret of this Doucet walking suit. I can almost immediately identify a “Minnie” by the color palette which is useful since many have lost their tags over the years. Thankfully we still have the original records for the 400+ object donation from her estate that we can refer back to!

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Doucet Walking suit. Circa 1914, France. Worn by Amanda “Minnie” Drexel Fell Cassatt. Gift of Mr. Alexander J. Cassatt. Courtesy of the Drexel Historic Costume Collection, Drexel University.

Christian Hernandez is the Plinth contributor for the Central Region, Canada, and the Museum of the Month feature. His goal for 2014 is to change the Google Instant search of "museums are" to include "museums are awesome" and giving daily reasons why on his Facebook page I Heart Museums - https://www.facebook.com/iheartmuseums