Follow the Thread

a textile & costume history blog from the Design Center at Thomas Jefferson University

A private home turned textile & costume collection


∼ by Jade Papa

When you walk through the front doors of the Design Center, the building that houses the Textile & Costume Collection on Thomas Jefferson University’s East Falls campus, you may never guess that you’re steps away from tens of thousands of objects related to the history of fashion and textiles.  In fact, you may think you’ve accidentally wandered into someone’s house!  You’d be excused for thinking this because, although no one has lived in the building since it was donated to the University in the mid-1970s, it did begin its life as a private residence

If you’ve visited the Design Center and made it beyond the front foyer, you likely spent the rest of your time in the galleries – or what would have been the dining room, living room, and bar when various members of the Paley and Levy families lived here.  But as you stand looking out over the backyard and its (now covered) pool, you might be wondering – where are all these objects hidden away?

the main hallway of the collection

This week’s blog post will take you behind the scenes, into the bedrooms, closets, and bathrooms (the house has eight!) to show you how and where we house our objects.  We keep traffic in these spaces to a minimum, in part because many of the spaces are small, but also to maintain the environmental conditions the objects are kept in as we work to preserve them for years to come.

It is both a joy and a challenge to work in a space that was never intended to house a historic collection.  Because we have so many objects in our collection (estimates range from 100k to 150k), we use every nook and cranny of the space.  Tiny closets in the master bath/dressing room become storage for some of our hats. 

Repurposing spaces to hold boxes and hats has required a significant amount of retrofitting. Occasionally we’re able to utilize some of the built in architectural features as is the case with the shoe closet (also located in the master bathroom) which now holds some of the collection’s shoes.  Built-in linen closets in the main hallway have been commandeered to hold hats.   

One of the larger rooms, the master bedroom, has two sets of built in closets with enormous mirrored doors.  The shelves in these closets are the perfect length to hold the long boxes where we store our early 19th century womenswear.

A closet houses 19th century womenswear. At left, cabinets full of swatches. At right, hanging storage.

In the early days of the Goldie Paley Design Center, this room was utilized as a workspace.  These days, rolling racks take the place of worktables.  The perimeter of this room is lined with file cabinets that house tens of thousands of fabric swatches and metal shelving units.  The 20th century womenswear stored in boxes on these shelves is undergoing a complete inventory, digitization, and rehousing.  The goal with so many objects in the collection is always to make them as easy to find as possible. Labels on the sides of the boxes include a photo of the object(s) inside.

In the former master bedroom, Paula Reiss (center) rolls a textile for storage while an assistant catalogs another object, early 1980s.
the “wallpaper room” closet houses children’s clothing

We call one of the other large bedrooms the “wallpaper room” for obvious reasons.  It houses all sorts of treasures: childrenswear, menswear, textile swatches, and our extensive collection of garments and textiles from around the world. 

While you now have a better idea of what lies just beyond the walls of the main public spaces, this is still just but a fraction of our 9,000 square foot space.  And don’t despair – even though you might only see these storage spaces in photographs, we’re happy to bring out any object that lives in these spaces to share with you.      

Curator and Adjunct Professor, Textile & Costume Collection, The Design Center, Thomas Jefferson University

Images of objects in our collection are copyrighted by Thomas Jefferson University. For inquiries regarding permissions and use fees, please contact: