This spring, the Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection (FHCC) launched its first online exhibition, a reflection on the tumultuous events of the past year. “2020: The Clothes We Wore and the Stories They Tell” recounts the experiences of the Drexel community during a year defined by social unrest and the COVID-19 pandemic.
I reached out to Professor Clare Sauro, Director of the FHCC, to learn more about the process of putting together this community-based exhibition. According to Professor Sauro, the FHCC struggled to come up with a concept for its first digital exhibition.
“After the events of 2020,” Sauro recounted, “it was clear that a traditional fashion-focused exhibition would seem trivial and possibly offensive. We have always made the argument that the clothing we wear is deeply personal and more than just clothes — this was our opportunity to make that case in a public way.”
The objects in the exhibition are far from traditional — leggings, t-shirts, pajamas, and several masks, both purchased and handmade. Many of these objects represent the shift we made in our wardrobes as work, classes and social interactions moved online. Others reflect the significance of clothing and accessories as a means of engaging in political and social movements. Yet others reflect a longing for normalcy, objects from our pre-pandemic wardrobes that we continued to wear throughout quarantine.
This exhibition was a community-based endeavor, reliant on the generosity and enthusiasm of Drexel staff and students. An inspiration for the exhibition, according to Sauro, was the Victoria and Albert Museum’s “We Want Quant!” outreach campaign to support the exhibition on the British designer. The museum crowdsourced photographs and stories from women who had worn Mary Quant clothing.
Each of the objects in “2020: The Clothes We Wore and the Stories They Tell” was submitted with a brief comment by its owner explaining its significance. Sauro noted that “the logistics involved with borrowing the objects during a pandemic was an enormous challenge.” An additional challenge was that the FHCC relied on the Drexel community to select objects to appear in the exhibition and write the commentary on these objects.
“It was a humbling experience for someone who is accustomed to mounting exhibitions with little interference,” wrote Sauro.
The FHCC is currently planning its next exhibition, which will focus on 1920s fashion. The exhibition will be in-person with a companion version online, as will all FHCC exhibitions moving forward.
“The world has gotten smaller during the past year,” Sauro reflected, “and online content will be expected.”
This is true not just of the FHCC, but of museums and archives everywhere. While many larger museums had online exhibitions and collections prior to the pandemic, the pandemic has prompted smaller institutions to find ways to increase their online presence. Digital exhibitions and digitized collections may become the new normal in the post-pandemic world.
“The response to the exhibition has been favorable and we are very grateful for those who shared their 2020 stories with us,” Sauro wrote. “We have been asked what OUR objects are, and I now realize that, while I was being mindful of making room for other voices in the exhibition, we did not share anything ourselves. We will have to correct that!”
“2020: The Clothes We Wore and the Stories They Tell” can be viewed at https://theclotheswewore.com/.