A close-up of an Instagram post that the Fox Historic Costume Collection shared in November of a James Galanos full-length sheath dress from 1955 made with silk satin straps and finely pleated silk organza with white and silver beading.
The first post was fairly drab, a simple shot of the storage space for Drexel University’s Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection, published on Instagram in July of 2013.
The next day, it was a rack of multi-colored coats. Then a flowery detail of an evening cape from 1915. And a silk waistcoat from the 1770s. And an emerald-green stiletto from 1959. Soon the account was churning out shots of vintage smoking jackets, dressing gowns, mod dresses, cardigans, caftans, purses, pantsuits, and a coral encrusted gown that was once owned and worn by Grace Kelly.
The following grew slowly at first. Monica Stevens Smyth, the collections manager for the Fox Collection who started the @fox_historic_costume Instagram account, said that in the early days, she did a lot of strategic liking and commenting on more established accounts. In 2015, the account was included in a post by The Costume Society called “10 Fashion and Textile Museum Instagrams You Should Be Following.” For a brief period following that, she was getting hundreds of new followers a day.
Today, the Fox Historic Costume Collection has more than 28,000 fans on Instagram. For those keeping track, that’s about twice as many as Drexel University.
“It’s mostly a whim of what inspires me,” Smyth said, describing what she shares on the account. “Mostly I just try to focus on good images of items in our collection, kind of as a visual treat.”
Like the rest of the Drexel Collection, the Fox Historic Costume Collection is kept as a teaching tool for students and, as Drexel art instructor Howard Pyle put it in 1898, “a help to historic and artistic study.” It holds roughly 14,000 fashion artifacts, representing designers like Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, Christian Dior, and Elsa Schiaparelli. As of 2016, the collection also includes around 700 ensembles designed by Philadelphia native James G. Galanos in the latter half of the 20th century. The collection is open to individual researchers and group tours by appointment.
“The goal is just to really get us out there,” said Smyth. “Internationally and globally, if you’re not online, you don’t exist. And if you don’t have a constant presence online, you don’t really exist.”
Though running the account isn’t part of her official job description, Smyth tries to post at least once a week.
“Generally, good detail shots and motion shots of beading tend to really catch people’s attention,” she said.
Smyth said she tried using Twitter but didn’t find it catching on. And the Fox Collection does have a page on Facebook (liked by more than 1,300 people) to share videos, articles and related industry news. But Instagram, which is solely focused on photographs, is really the best way to share the artifacts in the collection with young people and potential researchers.
“It’s just such a great visual tool,” Smyth said. “You don’t even have to read any of the headlines if you don’t want.”