Art Museum's fashion exhibit shows how words make clothing ours

From the “Wear Words: Text in Fashion. On display (from left) are: “Woman's Dress,” Summer 1960, Designed by Tina Leser, American, 1910-1986, checked linen plain weave, flocked acrylic fiber /// “Woman's Sweater,” Mid-1990s, Iceberg a division of Gilmar, Milan, Wool, angora, and rayon knit with wool and alpaca knit appliqués and wool yarn /// "Woman’s Strapless Dress and Detachable Panel," 1998, Designed by Stephen Spouse, American, 1953-2004, printed silk satin, printed silk chiffon /// “Woman's Two-piece Swimsuit,” Mid- 1940s, artist/maker unknown, American, cellulose acetate plain weave printed on both sides /// and “Woman's Jacket and Belt," 2000-2009; Designed by Marian Schoettle, American, born 1954; White Tyvek (non-woven polyethylene) printed with red and blue. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

I expected to see rebellious slogans stitched into the costumes and accessories on display in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s latest fashion exhibit, “Wear Words: Text in Fashion,” like the Revolutionary War’s call-to arms command “Liberty,” or 1960s civil rights slogans such as “Fight the Power.”

Instead, the costume collection’s associate curator, Kristina Haugland, took a quiet, cerebral approach to words. The 50-plus pieces featured in the Perelman Building’s Study Gallery offer a refined look at how words came to matter in our wardrobes. These pieces are more artistic than disruptive.

And in the midst of our new normal, where words are no longer minced or couched in hidden meaning, the effect is calming and just plain fun.

“At a time when people are wearing a lot of words, we wanted to present examples of how they’ve been used in the past,” Haugland explained as we started our educational journey around the 1,200-square-foot gallery.

“Wear Words” opened softly back in the spring, but access to it has been hampered by the installation and de-installation of the “Philadelphia Assembled” exhibit. It was closed for six weeks from late summer through the end of September,  and  will close again from Dec. 11 through Feb. 2 when “Philadelphia Assembled” is taken down. Once it reopens again, it will be open through June 24.

It’s definitely worth taking a spin through.

The Art Museum’s 30,000-piece costume collection comes primarily from donors who, when you think about it, have little reason to protest or make political statements. The world, for the most part, is on their side.

So the majority of words and sayings in Haugland’s beautifully curated collection announce the wearer’s status. It includes monogrammed intimates and handkerchiefs as well as fitted frocks splashed with designer logos. And there is quite the collection of art as fashion, another hallmark of the well-off.

Haugland organized the collection by theme, and the first assortment on display — three unisex pieces from the German-born, Los Angeles-based contemporary designer Bernhard Willhelm — seem strangely out of place.

Don’t get me wrong — the striped ensembles are interesting to look at and their nomadic feel is very current, thanks to high fashion’s focus on modesty. But the words on them — “The Waste Land” stitched into a scarf; “West Coast, East Coast” on long shorts — are, frankly, too obtuse to enjoy in the context of this exhibit, which other than this out-of-place section errs on the side of purposeful whimsy.

Yet once Willhelm’s pieces were behind me, “Wear Words” easily flowed from one sweet section to the other. Next in line are the art-as-fashion pieces featuring an Elizabethan-style collar meant to be seen, not worn. It was designed by Ohio-born artist Ann Hamilton in conjunction with Philadelphia’s Fabric Workshop  and Museum. The collar is embroidered with horsehair and Renaissance-style lettering is stitched inside.

“Hamilton’s art often reflects on how texts on textiles come together on bodies,” Haugland said. “This piece sums that up. The letters would be close to the throat, invisible if they were to be worn. It’s meant to have you think about the relationship of the body to clothing and language.”

Camera icon TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
T-shirt from Barbara Kruger.

Also in this section is a  T-shirt from Barbara Kruger that serves as a commentary on consumerism. It’s the only example in the exhibit of words as protest.

From there, the exhibit moves nicely into pop-art pieces that feature a swirl of vibrant Technicolor.  A hallmark of the collection is a 1990s  sweater by the Italian-based knitwear company Iceberg (now part of Gilmar Group), inspired by a poster from Andy Warhol.

But the coolest piece in this group is a tan, gingham-checked dress by Philadelphia-bred women’s wear designer Tina Leser. This cute 1960s dress features a bodice stitched with names of condiments: “pepper,” “ketchup,” and “ginger.” One might find this on Etsy or at a vintage store today.

Then there are more unconventional items. An early 2000s woman’s belted jacket made from Tyvek was designed by then-Philadelphia-based artist Marian Schoettle and donated to the museum by Rittenhouse Square specialty boutique owners David Schwartz and Sophy Curson. (Schoettle’s company, Mau Conceptual Clothing, is based in upstate New York,)

Camera icon Tom Gralish
“Woman’s Jacket and Belt,” designed by Marian Schoettle and made out of Tyvek.

Also included is quite the funky two-piece bathing suit made from an actual rayon World War II escape and evade map. (Back then, maps were made from fabric so if planes went down, the road to safety wouldn’t disintegrate in water.)

A patriotic grouping includes a Civil War-era child’s dress stamped with the Union shield design.

Camera icon Tom Gralish
A child’s dress  has a Union shield design.

And a World War II shirtwaist — a gift from a museum employee — covered with the  Royal Air Force logo announces its wearers’ support of the war. (The United States had not yet entered the war, but American women could support war efforts abroad by buying the fabric.)

Fashionistas will enjoy the section of logos. But these logos come from a time when designers were using them to discourage counterfeiting. Little did they know the logos themselves would be ripped off in some cases more than the silhouettes.

The four dresses include a 1960s Pucci with the designer’s first name, Emilio, as part of the swirling orange-and-pink psychedelic print. According to Haugland, Pucci didn’t want put his family name in his clothing back then. There is a tailored navy look from the late Philly-born fashion great James Galanos, with “Galanos” spelled in Greek letters; and a 2007 spoof of the Louis Vuitton logo by Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto that Yamamoto did with his own initials.

The label-obsessed will appreciate a Vuitton handbag from 2003, when Marc Jacobs was the house’s creative director. And there is a space-agey pair of silver Chanel moon boots à la Karl Lagerfeld.

Camera icon TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
“Wedding Combination Monogrammed With the initials VKT,” 1935; worn by Virginia Tucker Kent; New York; Silk crepe plain weave with cotton lace and silk embroidery. At left are other monogrammed women’s undergarments.

The exhibit ends with monogrammed delicates. These are words on apparel in their purest sense, because they identify the wearer. Laundry up until the 20th century was a chore that often took several days to get done, so the well-off sent their clothing. Wearers’ initials were stitched in them in order to keep track of the pieces. These initials became more detailed, and monograms came to be seen as a signifier of wealth and status.

And that’s where fashion is today. Every “Namaste” or snarky saying screen-printed on a shirt identifies the wearer in some way.

“It all comes back to personalized fashion,” Haugland said. “Words indelibly make clothes our own.”

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