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Fashion Icon Mary McFadden ‘The High Priestess of High Fashion’ Exhibition Opens at Drexel

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Drexel University
pays tribute to the ‘Modern Ritual’ of fashion icon Mary McFadden with a gala invitation-only
reception on Friday, May 10, that will gather Philadelphia’s fashion and
cultural leaders, followed by an exhibition open to the public. Mary McFadden
will travel from her home in New York City to attend the reception for the
retrospective exhibition, where she will be on hand throughout the evening to
discuss the various vignettes of her life’s work, which brings guests on a
luxurious journey around the world. The exhibition is made possible by a
gift to The
Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume
Collection
 (FHCC)
of Drexel University’s 
Antoinette Westphal College of Media
Arts & Design
, to
establish the Mary McFadden Archive at Drexel.

The
exhibition celebrates the incredible influence of the American designer and will
place her work in the context of her artistry and technique, highlighting
methods that include her signature Marii pleating, one-of-a-kind hand-painted
textiles, and opulent beading and embellishment.

“I’m honored
that so much of my work will be on view and available for the public to see up
close. It represents a lifetime collaboration of two of my favorite things to do:
fashion design and travel,” said Mary McFadden. “I have a strong connection to the
Philadelphia area which makes this even more special, and a bit of a homecoming.”

Harold Koda,
former curator-in-chief of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of
Art, once dubbed McFadden a “design archaeologist.” Her pursuit of knowledge
has led her around the world and inspired her collections, each named for an
era of history, an art or literary movement, or an ancient civilization.
Fashion critics and insiders have long praised McFadden for the handcrafted
quality of her work, from her hand-painted and quilted silks to her burnished
gold macrame bodices and trims. Her proprietary Marii pleated fabric, developed
in 1975, was created with a six-step heat treatment for Fortuny-esque pleats
that remain intact after wearing and cleaning. She presented Marii pleated
pieces in every collection, in colors dyed to specification in Japan for each
season, making her one of the most recognizable designers in late
twentieth-century American fashion.

“McFadden had
an exceptionally thorough approach to her work that produced unparalleled
creativity and artistic freedom,” said Rachel Sepielli, assistant curator, Mary
McFadden Archive, in the FHCC. “Critics regularly commented that her designs… ‘were
fully original, wearable art.’ While her silhouettes were often said to be easy
to wear, her surface techniques were sophisticated and her color combinations
unexpected. Sensual and modern, McFadden clothing was made for the woman not
afraid to forge her own path.”

 The
exhibition will draw heavily from the primary materials of the Mary
McFadden Archive at Drexel University, creating an immersive experience and
allowing for a greater understanding of this unconventional designer. On view
will be approximately 40 mannequins donning some of McFadden’s most intricately
crafted gowns, coats and separates, alongside a rich array of ephemera,
including design drawings and personal papers.

Throughout
her heyday, McFadden’s works appeared on the most influential and stylish
American women. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis wore one of her Marii pleated column
gowns to the 1976 opening of
The Glory of Russian Costume at the
Metropolitan Museum of Art. In a 1983 letter, Gloria Steinem wrote to McFadden:
“Thanks to a friend who gave me the gift of one of your classic pleated
dresses, I’ve just come from your showroom where I indulged myself by buying
two….And after seeing your showroom, I’d like to move in.” That letter will
be part of the exhibition. It was often said that McFadden was her own best
model, and she was frequently photographed wearing her own designs, becoming her
own best spokesperson.
 

The gift
endows a curatorial position within the FHCC and will provide students,
scholars and the greater public with unparalleled access to a collection of
garments, sketches, photographs and other archival materials. Additionally,
through exhibition, publication and digital media, the Archive will promote the
enduring legacy of Mary McFadden to a wide audience.

The
exhibition is open and free to the public. The gallery is located on the first
floor of the URBN Center at 3501 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104.
Operating hours are Tuesday through Friday 12-5 p.m. and Saturday, 12-5 p.m. by
appointment. Please contact Tashera Dean at 215-895-2319 for access. 

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