For the Love of Couture

Callot Soeurs, evening gown, circa 1926, France, Gift of Mr. Alexander J. Cassatt.
Callot Soeurs, evening gown, circa 1926, France, Gift of Mr. Alexander J. Cassatt. Callot was one of the finest Parisian couture houses of the early 20th century. One of about 50 items that will be on display in an exhibit next fall, thanks to a gift from the Richard C. von Hess Foundation. Photo by Michael J. Shepherd.

Even though the Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection (FHCC) dates back to the 1890s, its holdings have only seen the light of day a handful of times. Never before has the collection been featured in a large retrospective exhibit. That is, until now. This impressive collection of more than 12,000 notable garments, accessories and textiles will finally have its moment in the spotlight, thanks to a generous $220,000 donation by the Richard C. von Hess Foundation.

The partnership makes sense for the collection and the Philadelphia-based non-profit organization, which was founded by an award-winning art director, Richard C. von Hess, known for shaping the look of the architectural publication Tone Magazine for Armstrong World Industries. Von Hess and his wife, the late Louise Tinsley Steinman von Hess, had formed two foundations: the von Hess Foundation, which restored Wright’s Ferry Mansion in Columbia, Pa., as a public museum, and The Louise Steinman von Hess Foundation for Medical Education, which was transferred to the Lancaster General Hospital in 2005 to support medical research. 

“Mr. and Mrs. von Hess travelled extensively and were great lovers of couture and fashion,” said foundation chairman Thomas Hills Cook. “Mrs. von Hess was famous for her hats made by Mr. John, Lily Daché and Halston — and favored couture from Chanel, Schiaparelli and Pauline Trigere. So there is a great interest in our foundation for the art of couture.”

The foundation that bears his name was established to continue von Hess’s philanthropic vision for the arts and humanities. The Richard C. von Hess Foundation provides support to a wide variety of major museums and cultural organizations for conservation, exhibitions and publications. Also, the prestigious von Hess Travel Scholarship is awarded each year to an outstanding fine arts student at both the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the University of the Arts.

“We’re pretty widespread,” Cook said. “But the Fox Historic Costume Collection has all of the components that I look for. It is interesting, and very diverse. There’s scholarship. There’s conservation, which is another great interest of ours. And it’s teaching and educational.”

Prince Tirtoff-Romanoff, evening gown, circa 1952, USA, Gift of Mrs. Arthur E. Pew. One of about 50 items planned for a retrospective exhibit next fall, made possible by a generous gift from the Richard C. von Hess Foundation. Photograph by Will Brown.

After Cook toured the FHCC last year with President John Fry and its curator, Clare Sauro, he was blown away by what he saw.

“It’s a fabulous collection, but it had been underutilized,” he said.

Now, with the donation, the collection can be shown to the public, with a full-scale retrospective exhibition planned in the Leonard Pearlstein Gallery in the URBN Annex building next fall.

The objects on display will reflect the breadth of the collection and include a group of renaissance velvets, an 18th century robe à l'anglaise (think Marie Antoinette), and contemporary couture by Philadelphia native Ralph Rucci. Sauro plans to arrange the exhibition to give an overview of what’s in the collection.

Charles James Bustle evening gown, circa 1948, USA, Gift of Mrs. William S. Paley. Photograph by Will Brown.

“It’s a really wonderful opportunity to show the collection to the public,” Sauro said. “This is a collection that deserves to be nationally recognized.”

The donation will also help fund an academic symposium that will bring scholars and experts to campus to reflect on the far-reaching historic and stylistic importance of the FHCC, and other historic costume collections in educational settings. Drexel will issue a national call for papers in early 2015.

The exhibition is scheduled to run October to December, which includes the two-day symposium.