The Penn Museum opened its Stories We Wear exhibit with a gala on September 21, 2020, officially opening to the public on September 25. The exhibit, pulling from the Penn Museum’s own collection and supplemented by items from Drexel’s Historical Costume Collection, uses items meant to be worn—including but not limited to clothing, jewelry, armour, and even tattoos—from across locations and time periods to tell the stories of those who would have worn them. Their stories come not only from their designs and historical & cultural context, but also from the garment construction process. Though not everything is visible through the exhibit—for example, visitors, for very good reason, cannot reach into garments and work out their construction inside out—the stitches that are visible and ostensibly invisible, if examined, create another layer of storytelling.
A Mongolian deel on display, dated to the early 19th century, would have been worn by a married Khalkha woman. It is elaborately and extremely carefully made—strips of silk in varying vibrant colors and patterns are stitched onto the collar, waist, sleeves, and hem of the garment, but the attachment points appear largely seamless. Fabric on the shoulders are gathered onto a round disk. The sides facing out appear seamless, while those facing in lie in neat, flat gathers. Despite the deel’s otherwise seamless outer appearance, it features neat, visible hand stitching; where the end of the sleeves flare out, there is a line of neat, diagonal whip stitches done with a thick, likely strong thread in a contrasting light color. The deel closes on the right side of the body with frog closures, a technique rare to western fashion that is as decorative as it is functional.
Also dated to the 19th century, a Chinese chaofu features the same level of meticulous stitching in its dragon embroidery and similar piecing of different elaborate textiles. The embroidery seems to have been done in multiple stages: some before the garment was pieced together, creating very slight mismatches at the seams, and others after, with the thread running over them. Like the deel, the chaofu features neat, visible hand stitching; the pleats at the skirts are carefully tacked into place with small, near-invisible stitching. The chaofu also uses frog closures on the right side of the chest, and is constructed in a distinctively eastern way—there is no seam at the top of the shoulder or attaching the sleeve to the body. When held up on the mannequin, the chaofu shows slight wrinkles at the underarm area, and in the museum’s photos where it is laid flat, the sleeves naturally lie in a T-shape. These details show that the top of garment was constructed by sewing T-shaped pieces together in a way that formed the sleeves and body, a construction technique that has been associated with Asian dress for centuries.
Mang Pao, or Chinese Opera Dragon Robe
By contrast, a 19th century Chinese opera costume on display, labelled as a mang pao (or “dragon robe”), shows similar construction techniques to the chaofu but with significantly less attention to detail. It is hung up in a T-shape with no wrinkling, suggesting that it was constructed in the same way as the chaofu was. Large, impactful dragon motifs are embroidered down the front and the back, and the interaction between the embroidery and the seams shows that all of it was done prior to assembly. However, unlike the meticulous matching of the embroidery at the seams and overlaid embroidery present in the chaofu, the mang pao’s seam embroidery was significantly more haphazard, with the outline of the dragon’s mouth looking almost mismatched by a full half-inch. The hand-stitching on the garment is also equally haphazard—from the back of the costume, the long and uneven ends of the backstitches used at the front were completely visible, and so were the messy backs of the embroidery. The same whip stitches used on the deel were also used on the mang pao, but they did not look nearly as cohesive with the rest of the garment as the ones on the deel despite the thread sometimes matching the fabric. However, this difference in construction is not a fault of the garment; while the chaofu and deel were worn during the day in close proximity with other people, the mang pao was for stage performance, where the overall effect of the costume was more important than the details. The bright turquoise and magenta of the silk and the bold golden dragon embroidery would have stood out beautifully onstage, and the haphazard stitching at the back would have gone unnoticed.
Dorothy Vosser’s Dress
Moving halfway across the globe and forward a century to the 1930s, there is an observable decline in visible hand stitching in favor of machine stitching, as well as an increase in home sewing rather than specialized work. A pink and white cotton dress on display, attributed to Christina Vossers and made for her sister Dorothy around 1936, had an elastic waistband so that it could fit anyone. The dress may not have been constructed by a notable designer, but it was made with practicality and flexibility in mind and passed down through generations, making it a piece of family history. The dress is also emblematic of the culture of home sewing that was popularized due to economic necessity, as it was simple but nevertheless impactful. The front of the bodice was made up of two pieces, the skirt was two pieces for the front and back, and there were no sleeves, meaning no finicky sleeve seams. The dress, made up of a lightweight cotton, also seemed to be completely unlined, in contrast to the heavy, structured silks featured on 19th century garments. The simplicity and lack of explicit fit not only allowed for the versatility of the elastic waistband, but also made this dress easy and fast to make, which would have been an asset to an otherwise busy home seamstress. All visible stitching was done by machine, a sharp contrast from the handwork on the previous garments.
Eric Jaffe’s Bustle Gown
Moving into the 20th century, a bright magenta bustle gown worn by Philadelphia drag queen Eric Jaffe in their musical parody Thweeny Todd: The Flaming Barber of Fleek Street plays with time and gender. Though the garment was constructed in the silhouette of a dress from the late bustle era that lasted from 1883 to 1889, the construction of the garment clues us in that it was made significantly more recently. The dress is all in one solid bright magenta, the black lace is visibly made up of a synthetic material, the visible machine-stitching uses a longer stitch length than machines would have used in the 1883-1889 range, and a few details of the shape just seem slightly “off” from the historical silhouette. Like the mang pao, which was built for a dramatic performance in a Chinese opera setting, the bustle gown was built for a performance in a modern drag company, meaning that overall impact is more important than minor details. In a drag show in particular, part of that impact is about toying with gender. At the end of the day, it does not matter that I can tell up close that this dress is clearly not from the historical era it is referencing. The bright color of the dress and the bustle’s dramatic, exaggeratedly feminine silhouette achieves a visual impact, one that would have been stunning under the lights of a drag show.
The Stories We Wear exhibit points out that every wearable item tells a story, but there is an additional story about their creation hidden in the seams. While much of that story is hidden to exhibit viewers, the parts that peek through are beautiful.
Cover image courtesy of the Penn Museum