In Philadelphia’s bucolic East Falls neighborhood, down the street from the colonial mansion where Grace Kelly spent her childhood, is a mid-century ranch once owned by Goldie Paley, the mother of former CBS chairman William S. Paley. Outside, the piano-shaped swimming pool dominates the backyard. Inside, linen closets and file cabinets brim with tens of thousands of garments, accessories, and fabric swatches: the Textile and Costume Collection at Thomas Jefferson University, the first textile school in the country (it was founded in 1884) and still one of its preeminent fashion institutes.
“Sometimes, at the end of my day, I’ll say, ‘Let’s treat myself ’ and open a new box,” says curator Jade Papa, who teaches a class on fashion history. While she’s most likely to uncover 19th-century American womenswear or accessories (“A lot came from grandchildren digging around in grandma’s attic,” she says), the collection spans global history— including Coptic textiles from the first century C.E.—and traces Philadelphia’s textile history through artifacts like an 18th-century quilt designed by calico printer John Hewson and Stetson fedoras, which were made across town, in the Kensington neighborhood, until the 1970s.
The center is open to the public only by appointment, but its pieces often appear in shows around the city, in museums like the National Constitution Center. Its latest exhibition, Hold on to Your Hat, on display until August 15th at Jefferson’s Paul J. Gutman Library, pairs 13 hats from the late 19th and early 20th centuries with student recreations made of paper, such as a bonnet with a laser-cut lace pattern.
Papa uses the collection to teach her students that “there’s nothing new in the world of fashion” and to provide inspiration for their work. For senior Tommy Heidebrecht, the woven pattern and shawl collar in a men’s 19th-century silk vest inspired an outfit in his capstone collection, a line of evening wear exploring masculinity in fashion. “Men’s clothing used to be highly decorative, but today that’s no longer the case,” he says. April Traugott, another senior, drew upon 19th-century women’s pieces, like a silk bodice, for her thesis, which interpreted antebellum women’s fashion across different social classes. The print of one of her dresses contrasts white magnolia flowers with red streaks, alluding to the lashes doled out by a plantation owner’s wife. “I wanted to juxtapose this notion of a woman being very pure with this hardness,” she explains.
For Papa, this is where the collection belongs—out in the classroom, among her students. “I don’t want my classes looking at art in the dark. It does no one any good if these boxes sit in a back bedroom.”