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From naked Greek athletes to Marian Anderson’s elegant velvet concert gown, new show at Penn Museum is dressed for all occasions

With its first major exhibition post-shutdown, the museum covers 2,500 years of adornment demonstrating the power of clothing to shape and conceal identity.

A statue of a naked ancient Greek athlete juxtaposed with athletes today, like players on the Eagles, with padding, cleats, helmets, jersey numbers, and other attire, at “The Stories We Wear” exhibition at the Penn Museum.
A statue of a naked ancient Greek athlete juxtaposed with athletes today, like players on the Eagles, with padding, cleats, helmets, jersey numbers, and other attire, at “The Stories We Wear” exhibition at the Penn Museum.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

“Clothes make the man” is a familiar enough platitude — a bit of deep folk wisdom launched by Homer a couple of millennia ago.

It certainly holds true to this day, having been sharpened for the literal American imagination by the likes of Mark Twain, who observed that “without his clothes a man would be nothing at all.”

In Twain’s mind, “clothes do not merely make the man, the clothes are the man.” Moreover, “without them he is a cipher, a vacancy, a nobody, a nothing … There is no power without clothes.”

Twain rarely met a top he couldn’t go over.

But he had a point to his joke, as a visit to the Penn Museum makes clear. Clothes and the person are at the heart of “The Stories We Wear,” the major exhibition that relaunches major programming at the museum in the wake of pandemic and renovation-related shutdowns. The exhibition will run through June 12, 2022.

Penn curators have culled through thousands of objects — from the museum’s own collection and from other collections in the region — to come up with about 250 objects that reveal how clothing and accessories reinforce identity and undercut it, sometimes at the same time.

From Marian Anderson’s deep red velvet concert gown she wore many times (from the National Marian Anderson Museum & Historical Society) to a Hopi wedding ensemble to the Amazonian echoes of Scythian warrior women buried with their weaponry, “The Stories We Wear” spins out tales of identity and human adornment.

And one of the first things you notice when entering the exhibit is that while Twain is generally right, when he is wrong, he is very, very wrong, providing one of the show’s best moments.

The classical Greeks loved the unadorned nude male athlete in particular, as Mediterranean archaeologist Sarah Linn, museum liaison and one of three exhibition curators, emphasized during a stroll through the show a few days ago.

She paused next to a bronze statue depicting a nude male runner, most likely a Roman copy of a Greek original, seeming about to dart off, deerlike. Directly in front of Linn loomed Connor Barwin’s towering, cyclopean Eagle, wearing gear on loan from the former linebacker.

A high-tech linebacker outfit and the pure naked skin of a fleet Greek marathoner are about as close to the dichotomy of being and nothingness as you can get. Yet both signify supreme skill and competitiveness. Could the naked runner escape the padded Cyclops?

“I have a lot of fun with the Greek athletes,” Linn said. “You know, the ancient Greeks did all of their athletics pretty much in the nude. Yes. They ran. They boxed. They wrestled — all naked. The gymnasium actually means ‘the naked place.’”

Barwin’s uniform and the corroding bronze of the naked Greek runner — a reproduction of an original from Herculaneum reproduced about a century ago at the expense of John Wannamaker, no less — represent one of the exhibition’s defining themes: work and play. The others are ceremony, performance, battle, and rule.

The concept, distilled well before the pandemic struck, grows from an exhibition curators stumbled on from the 1940s, said lead curator Lauren Ristvet, assistant curator in the museum’s Near East section and associate director of excavations at Tell Leilan, Syria. That earlier show was called “5,000 Years of Vanity.” (The exhibit’s third curator is Jane Hickman, a consulting scholar in the museum’s Mediterranean section.)

“As an anthropologist and a woman, I get annoyed at the idea that clothing is just vanity,” said Ristvet. “It’s 2021 not 1943. So in some ways, I think our idea began with turning that on its head and showing why jewelry and clothing and footwear and anything you can think of that you can put on your body is actually important and meaningful.”

What this exhibition shows most vividly, perhaps, is that clothing is transformative. It defines and reveals, but also disguises and deceives in ways that can be devious, particularly when it comes to gender. And what is a more common expression of gender than clothing?

So, it is no surprise that at the exhibition’s very entrance is the bustle-y, purply, frilly costume that bearded dragmeister Eric Jaffe designed and wore during their performance as Mrs. Lovesitt in the musical parody, Thweeney Todd: The Flaming Barber of Fleek Street, Jaffe’s parodic take on Broadway’s Sweeney Todd.

Linn has seen a number of Jaffe’s performances, including Lizard of Oz and Gay Mis.

“They’re very fun,” she said. “Our goal here is to talk about drag as performance, but also this overlay of musical and drag. In Philadelphia right now, Eric Jaffe is a pretty well-known drag performer but these musicals add an extra layer on to that because these are known characters.”

Mrs. Lovett from Sweeney Todd becomes Mrs. Lovesitt once she gets a run through Jaffe’s brain. The costume on display sports rhinestone buttons (of course), a touch of cheetah print, lots of magenta, lace, a great bustle thrusting out the back, and, of course, the whole topped by a teeny, sparkly crown.

“I think they’re layering Lovett with actresses like Angela Lansbury on top of Eric Jaffe’s bearded drag performer identity,” said Linn. “That creates a whole new thing here. So it’s taking performance to the next level, it’s talking about layers of identity, and playing with identity and using costume as a way to inform that identity.”

Joining Jaffe’s costume at the entrance to the exhibition is a costume offering a completely different take on identity.

Marian Anderson acquired the merlot velvet gown right before her historic concert in front of an integrated outdoor audience of 75,000 at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, in Washington, D.C. It was worn several times in performances at the Academy of Music and elsewhere, and derives its cultural significance from the fact Anderson wore it — an instance of the woman making the clothes. (In more ways than one, as will become clear.)

“This is a dress that she really wore throughout most of her career,” said Ristvet “The person who designed it is also pretty interesting — she was one of the first African American fashion designers who sort of dressed everyone at the time.”

That would be Zelda Barbour Wynn Valdes, who opened her own boutique on Broadway in 1948. Valdes also dressed the “who’s who” of the 20th century, like Ella Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker, Mae West, and others, Ristvet said.

“She was known for being very good with women who had curves,” Ristvet continued. “She helped design the Playboy bunny outfit. She had one of the first stores owned by a Black woman on Broadway.”

Where Marian Anderson fit in the pantheon of Playboy bunny and Mae West is not a question addressed in the exhibition. But one thing is certain, she made what she wore unforgettable.

“We were happy to borrow any dress that she performed in,” said Ristvet.