My favorite thing in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s show “Fabulous Fashion: From Dior’s New Look to Now” is a hat designed by Hubert de Givenchy in 1988. This shocking-pink creation, made of silk satin and acetate velvet, scarcely looks like a hat at all.

It is, rather, a complex, energetic ripple, a piece of abstract sculpture that can sit on the head. What makes it so seductive, though, is not its artiness but its nerve and its silliness. Not every woman could wear this hat convincingly. It requires confidence, a decisive walk, and probably a sharp tongue as well.

The hat is an effective avatar of fashion itself. It seems to be in motion. Its shape seems a bit arbitrary. But like those butterfly wings we keep hearing about that can cause a hurricane halfway around the world, there is force in its delicacy. The hat has attitude and it requires the same in its wearer.

Fashion is a way of being in the world, a way to present yourself in ways that heighten your essential qualities, or to experiment with being someone different. In the extremely high-style women’s clothing on display here, it is all done with a shape, a drape, a sparkle, an explosion of taffeta, a tartan of bead work, a dramatic burst of feathers.

“Fabulous Fashion” appears to be drawing large and enthusiastic crowds. They do not dress up to see the show as they would have decades ago. But a show of spectacular clothing can engage an audience far more intimately than most art exhibitions. Visitors can imagine wearing the clothing, or think about others who would look great in one dress or another. Nostalgia for Nan Duskin’s Rittenhouse Square fashion salon is in the air.

The show feels a lot like shopping. That’s the source of its charm and the cause of its limitations.

Curator Kristina Haugland with some "Fabulous Fashion" pieces.
Curator Kristina Haugland with some "Fabulous Fashion" pieces.

The Art Museum has a large and excellent permanent costume collection, and its costume department regularly produces excellent, focused shows. In this case, though, the approach was simply to take a lot of spectacular and luxurious dresses out of the closet and invite the rest of us to gawk — which we’re happy to do. It ends, as the Art Museum’s big fashion retrospectives tend to, with Grace Kelly’s wedding finery, designed not by a famous couturier but by the costume department at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Thus, the show seems dated, not in its look, but in its attitudes. It seems to assert that fashion of the last seven decades has been shaped by the needs and desires of women wealthy enough to commission work from a small number of mostly male designers, as seen in Vogue.

The exhibition does document that this small world still exists, and that designers are continuing to create some eye-popping frocks. But the time when a handful of New York fashion editors decreed the hemlines of a nation is nearly half a century in the past.

“You can fight fashion only by being unfashionable,” New Yorker fashion critic Kennedy Fraser wrote in 1970, at precisely the moment when this hegemony ended. The nature of fashion, though, is that it co-opts those who revolt against it by making what they wear part of the next fashion.

And clearly, the lives of even the upper-class women who bought and wore these dresses has changed. They don’t plan their lives around big showy parties to which they can wear their latest gown.

“Fabulous Fashion” eschews social history, economic history, technological history, and even fashion history. Its focus is solely on the dresses, gowns, and a handful of suits worn by faceless manikins clustered on risers. The groupings are based on formal or material properties, such as shape, color, pattern, and metallic looks.

Within these categories there are sometimes interesting contrasts across time. For example, I was interested to see the deep-red velvet “winged victory” evening dress designed in 1947 by the Hollywood designer Adrian displayed next to a black satin dress by Pierre Cardin from 1981.

Adrian "Woman's Evening Dress," 1947
Tim Tiebout
Adrian "Woman's Evening Dress," 1947

Both come from moments when big shoulders — on men as well as women — were in vogue. Yet, seeing these two dresses side by side demonstrates how history doesn’t quite repeat itself.

The Adrian dress takes up a lot of space, and the big fabric puffs at its shoulders are horizontal. This is a powerful garment, but it offers at least the suggestion of an embrace. The Cardin, by contrast, is compact and vertical, and its shoulders have a shark’s-fin assertiveness that signals that this is a woman who is not to be trifled with.

The bustle — an extension of the rear of the dress — is conventionally seen as a Victorian phenomenon, though a few dresses here show how it has endured. The gorgeous white-over-black women’s evening ensemble of dress, overdress, bustle, and petticoat by Cristobal Balenciaga from 1951 hints at flamenco. Cardin’s white silk evening dress from 1991 creates cascades of fabric, evoking whipped cream or clouds.

Cristóbal Balenciaga "Woman's Evening Ensemble: Dress, Overdress, Bustle, and Petticoat" (spring 1951)
Tim Tiebout
Cristóbal Balenciaga "Woman's Evening Ensemble: Dress, Overdress, Bustle, and Petticoat" (spring 1951)

And so one goes into this show, flitting like a bee from flower to flower — of which, by the way there are far too many, especially of the silk variety. Sometimes, the dresses are surprising and brilliant. With others, you wonder who would want to wear a dress dominated by oversize bows or chain mail made of reflective plastic disks.

And here’s a dress — or at least a 2013 “reinterpretation” of one — designed by a famous artist, Ellsworth Kelly. He made it for a thin woman, and it comes across as a rectangular canvas with horizontal stripes. It is a bit dull perhaps, but it’s almost the only outfit in the show you can imagine a woman actually wearing. Just about all the rest promotes the fantasy of woman as walking ornament.

“Gorgeous” is what visitors keep saying, and they’re right. But it’s a little bit empty-headed, too. Fashion is too interesting, too mysterious, to be considered in such an old-fashioned way.


Fabulous Fashion: From Dior’s New Look to Now

Through March 3 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy.

Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday (open to 8:45 p.m. Wednesday and Friday). Closed Mondays, but open Jan. 21 for Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Feb. 18 for Presidents’ Day.

Museum admission: Adults, $20; seniors, $18; ages 13-18 and students with ID, $14 (free for ages 12 and under).

Information: 215-763-8100 or