There’s Treasure Everywhere at the Design Center

Jefferson’s textile and costume collection features 150,000 pieces with some objects dating back to the 4th century.
South American fabric
Among the Design Center's vast collection is this South American painted textile from as early as the 12th century.

For curator Jade Papa, some of the most rewarding parts of her job come from discovering hidden treasures in the vast textile and costume collection at Jefferson’s Design Center.

And with some 150,000 pieces housed in the mid-20th-century ranch home on the edge of East Falls Campus, these special moments come frequently.

The other day, Papa was combing through boxes of South American pieces—part of the University’s effort to categorize and digitalize the collection’s non-Western objects—when she spied a large piece of woven cloth in a natural tone. Papa had a feeling something stood out with this textile covered with painted designs of people and fish. After researching the fabric, she discovered it came from the Chancay culture, circa 1100-1400.

Jade Papa works on the Behind the Seams exhibit

Design Center curator Jade Papa sets up an 1880s bustle dress, part of the “Behind the Seams” exhibit at Hayward Hall.

“We’re always making new discoveries, so it’s almost like we’re getting new stuff,” Papa says.

The museum-quality collection spans the world and stretches back in time. Its earliest items include 95 Coptic textiles from the 4th century. Other pieces come from just decades ago but carry special significance to Philadelphia as well as University history.

When area textile manufacturers and mills closed down throughout the 20th century, they often would donate their remaining pieces to the University rather than throw them away.

“That’s where our strength lies,” she says. “They handed their legacy off to us.”

The collection includes this indigo resist dyed cloth from Yorubaland, Nigeria. The resist is created from starch made from cassava flour, which is applied via stencil or paint.
The collection includes this indigo resist dyed cloth from Yorubaland, Nigeria. The resist is created from starch made from cassava flour, which is applied via stencil or paint.

Other pieces in the Design Center’s collection came about more serendipitously. Through a presentation to members of East Falls Village, Papa connected with Alice Reiff, the longtime seamstress for politician Joan Specter (and husband of the late senator Arlen Specter) and Blanche Paley Levy. The Levy family donated their house—now the Design Center—to the University in 1977.

Reiff gave Papa one dress from Specter and three from Levy, the first time the University acquired materials from the family that previously lived in the building.

This marked one of the rare recent moments where Papa accepted donations. “We collect pieces very selectively,” she says. “We’re stuffed to the gills.”

Blanche Levy

Jade Papa recently added three dresses belonging to Blanche Paley Levy. This marks the first time Jefferson acquired materials from the family that previously lived in the building that now houses the textile and costume collection.

Papa, however, does have some other exceptions to the rule. In fact, she will occasionally buy items to fill holes in the collection. Papa just purchased a late 19th century summer corset, which she will use as a teaching tool for textile and fashion students. (In addition to curating the collection, she teaches courses like “20th Century Fashion Designers” and “History of Costumes and Textiles.”)

Students from all majors can take advantage of the collection, though. Visual communication design, industrial design, health sciences and architecture students have all visited, Papa says.

“They bring great perspectives,” she says. “Their questions are different than fashion design students. It’s an eye-opening opportunity.”

South American shirt

Cream-colored cotton huipil with floral print at the shoulders and puffed sleeves. The mola panels use a reverse appliqué technique in a pattern named “Miners with Rider.”

Papa wants to spread the word about the Design Center even more this semester. On the first floor of Hayward Hall, she will have a rotating display of objects from the collection.

First up is a trio of pieces that highlight design details at the back of the figure. Dubbed “Behind the Seams,” the design snapshot features an 1880s bustle dress, 1960s cocktail dress and early 19th century kimono. Future displays will showcase student work as they create modern interpretations of garments from the Design Center.

Design Center pieces will continue to be presented beyond the University as well. A jumper by streetwear fashion icon Willi Smith will be displayed at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum through Oct. 24. Also this fall, Jefferson will share two 1920s pieces for a Drexel University show—beach pajamas and a Bauhaus-inspired dress by famed Parisian designers Callot Soeurs.

Willi Wear

A jumper by streetwear fashion icon Willi Smith is currently on display at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

With so many pieces in the collection, and more discovered each day, one might think that Papa struggles to pick a favorite item or two. However, she doesn’t hesitate when asked.

The Design Center features various christening gowns and wedding dressing, she says. “That’s what people saved then, and it’s what people save now.”

On the other hand, everyday clothes by everyday people often got worn down to rags and didn’t stand the test of time. Those few pieces in the collection stick out the most.

“We have a very modest, lovely printed cotton dress from the 1850s,” she describes. “It’s beautiful because it’s not silk and covered in lace. It’s a small sliver of the clothing of people of the past.”

The Design Center is open by appointment only. Contact Jade Papa to schedule a visit. See more pieces from the Design Center collection below.

A person working with coptic textiles
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Design and Style