beading detail by Mary McFadden

Fashion Icon Mary McFadden 'The High Priestess of High Fashion' Kicks Off Stunning Retrospective Exhibition of Her Work at Drexel University

‘Modern Ritual’ The Art of Mary McFadden will open with a star-studded gala on May 10, followed by a public exhibition which opens on May 11and runs through Oct. 11, 2024.
Mary McFadden dress

Drexel University pays tribute to the ‘Modern Ritual’ of fashion icon Mary McFadden with a gala invitation-only reception on Friday, May 10, that will gather Philadelphia’s fashion and cultural leaders, followed by an exhibition open to the public. Mary McFadden will travel from her home in New York City to attend the reception for the retrospective exhibition, where she will be on hand throughout the evening to discuss the various vignettes of her life’s work, which brings guests on a luxurious journey around the world. The exhibition is made possible by a gift to The Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection (FHCC) of Drexel University’s Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, to establish the Mary McFadden Archive at Drexel.

The exhibition celebrates the incredible influence of the American designer and will place her work in the context of her artistry and technique, highlighting methods that include her signature Marii pleating, one-of-a-kind hand-painted textiles, and opulent beading and embellishment.

“I’m honored that so much of my work will be on view and available for the public to see up close. It represents a lifetime collaboration of two of my favorite things to do: fashion design and travel,” said Mary McFadden. “I have a strong connection to the Philadelphia area which makes this even more special, and a bit of a homecoming.”

Harold Koda, former curator-in-chief of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, once dubbed McFadden a “design archaeologist.” Her pursuit of knowledge has led her around the world and inspired her collections, each named for an era of history, an art or literary movement, or an ancient civilization. Fashion critics and insiders have long praised McFadden for the handcrafted quality of her work, from her hand-painted and quilted silks to her burnished gold macrame bodices and trims. Her proprietary Marii pleated fabric, developed in 1975, was created with a six-step heat treatment for Fortuny-esque pleats that remain intact after wearing and cleaning. She presented Marii pleated pieces in every collection, in colors dyed to specification in Japan for each season, making her one of the most recognizable designers in late twentieth-century American fashion.

“McFadden had an exceptionally thorough approach to her work that produced unparalleled creativity and artistic freedom,” said Rachel Sepielli, assistant curator, Mary McFadden Archive, in the FHCC. “Critics regularly commented that her designs… ‘were fully original, wearable art.’ While her silhouettes were often said to be easy to wear, her surface techniques were sophisticated and her color combinations unexpected. Sensual and modern, McFadden clothing was made for the woman not afraid to forge her own path.”

 The exhibition will draw heavily from the primary materials of the Mary McFadden Archive at Drexel University, creating an immersive experience and allowing for a greater understanding of this unconventional designer. On view will be approximately 40 mannequins donning some of McFadden’s most intricately crafted gowns, coats and separates, alongside a rich array of ephemera, including design drawings and personal papers.

Throughout her heyday, McFadden’s works appeared on the most influential and stylish American women. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis wore one of her Marii pleated column gowns to the 1976 opening of The Glory of Russian Costume at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In a 1983 letter, Gloria Steinem wrote to McFadden: “Thanks to a friend who gave me the gift of one of your classic pleated dresses, I’ve just come from your showroom where I indulged myself by buying two....And after seeing your showroom, I’d like to move in.” That letter will be part of the exhibition. It was often said that McFadden was her own best model, and she was frequently photographed wearing her own designs, becoming her own best spokesperson. 

The gift endows a curatorial position within the FHCC and will provide students, scholars and the greater public with unparalleled access to a collection of garments, sketches, photographs and other archival materials. Additionally, through exhibition, publication and digital media, the Archive will promote the enduring legacy of Mary McFadden to a wide audience.

The exhibition is open and free to the public. The gallery is located on the first floor of the URBN Center at 3501 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104. Operating hours are Tuesday through Friday 12-5 p.m. and Saturday, 12-5 p.m. by appointment. Please contact Tashera Dean at 215-895-2319 for access.