With initial acquisitions from the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, the Philadelphia Museum of Art launched what has become one of the oldest and largest collections of costume and textiles in the United States. The first textile collections documented the development of design and techniques in Egypt, Greece, Persia, Turkey, India and Europe. In the 1920s and '30s, the Museum acquired extensive groups of 18th- and 19th-century French textiles as complements to its growing presentation of 18th-century French and English period rooms and decorative arts.
The Museum's earliest costume holdings illustrated the "home life, customs, and manufactures of colonial times." These were later joined by major gifts of 18th- and 19th-century material, ranging from weaving pattern books and Pennsylvania German quilts to the clothing of fashionable Philadelphia. In 1956 the Museum received its best known item of clothing, the wedding dress worn by Princess Grace of Monaco, who was, of course, Grace Kelly of Philadelphia. The most important acquisition to date of work by a single designer was Elsa Schiaparelli's gift of seventy-one of her costumes and accessories, including many that are icons of 20th-century fashion.
The collection's varied and often surprising strengths have inspired and formed the basis for innovative exhibitions such as "As Pieces Here to Pieces Join": American Applique Quilts, 1800-1900 (1989), Ahead of Fashion: Hats of the 20th Century (1993), Community Fabric: African American Quilts and Folk Art (1994), and Best Dressed: 50 Years of Style (1997-8). Gallery 271, on the Museum's second floor, features rotating, focused installations drawn from the permanent collections, such as Church Vestments and Embroideries from the 14th through the 18th Century (1998-9) and Steeled for Style: Hoop Skirts of the Civil War Era (May 1, 1999-February 6, 2000).
The permanent collection catalogues Best Dressed: Fashion from the Birth of Couture to Today and The Fine Art of Textiles (both 1997) present informative and fully illustrated overviews of the Museum's rare and beautiful costumes and textiles.