Staff Spotlight: Jade Papa of the Design Center

A treasure of the East Falls Campus is the university’s Textile & Costume Collection. The collection, housed in The Design Center, consists of remarkably diverse, museum-quality holdings used for teaching, research, and scholarship. The collection includes Coptic textiles dating to the 4th century A.D., Pre-Columbian textiles from the 12th to 14th centuries, European textile fragments from the 15th to 17th centuries – just to name a few!

Jade Papa, Curator and Adjunct Professor, runs the Textile & Costume Collection and Design Center. We sat down with Jade to discuss the collection, find out which pieces she admires most, and learn how people can enjoy the collection remotely.

What is your title and role at Thomas Jefferson University?
I’m an adjunct professor and the Curator of the Textile and Costume Collection.

What interests you about textiles and costumes and what inspired you to pursue a career in higher education?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved learning about history.  When I was young, I watched Indiana Jones over and over again and dreamed about being an archaeologist.  My mother was a dressmaker and taught me how to sew, so in a way, you might say I combined those two loves and became a clothing archaeologist.

My undergraduate and graduate degrees are in theatre and I worked as a costume designer and maker for twelve years.  I was drawn to the theatre because I was able to bring history to life onstage.  Through a character’s costume, I was able to tell their story and the story of a particular place in time.

It’s an object’s story that really interests me.  When I look at an object in the Textile and Costume Collection, I immediately want to know more – more about the person who made or designed it, its cultural significance, the technology needed to make it, and of course, the person who might have worn it, used it, or kept it.  It’s my hope that in this search for clues, I can re-connect those of us looking at them now to these stories.   

Your courses span a range of topics, with titles including, “20th Century Fashion Designers,” and “History of Costumes & Textiles.” How do you incorporate the Textile & Costume Collection and Design Center into your teaching? What types of unique learning opportunities are awarded to your students because of the collection?
Students have the rare opportunity in these classes to interact directly with the objects.  I get to share with them things they would typically only see in photos or behind glass at a museum. For instance, my class was studying the Byzantine period and we’d been speaking not only about particular types of garments, but also natural dyes, weaving techniques, and technology. Instead of just taking my word for it, I was able to bring out a few of our Byzantine textile fragments and a tunic that we’re fortunate to have and show them first-hand the amazing vibrancy of the dyes, the intricate woven figures, and the cut and construction of textiles that are around 1500 years old. That always blows their minds! 

Seeing an object in front of you makes your interaction with history so much more real.  I teach textile and fashion design students. They’re visual and tactile learners and so handling an 18th century brocade is so much more impactful than just seeing it onscreen.        

Are there any specific pieces or materials within the Textile and Costume Collection that you find most interesting to teach? What items within the collection are most inspiring to you?
I feel like the objects that are most inspiring to me change weekly as we’re in an inventory phase and constantly finding new things.  However, I always find myself coming back to a woman’s dress that dates from around the 1850s.  It’s not lavishly embellished and is made from a rougher brown, floral printed cotton.  But it’s in the ordinariness of it that lies its fascination.  So many of the objects preserved in museum collections are someone’s best dress – a wedding dress or a special occasion dress – something that was worn once or infrequently and was kept because of the occasion it marked.  This brown floral dress is an everyday dress worn by an everyday woman.  The type of dress that would have been worn and worn until it was threadbare and possibly ended its life as scraps for a quilt.  The dress of everyday people is much rarer in collections and that’s why I find this particular dress so fascinating.  

Most of us are working remotely at the moment. If people are interested in the Textile and Costume Collection and want to visit the Design Center, are they able to? What types of online resources are available?
Absolutely!  It’s not only students in my class that have access to the objects in the Textile and Costume Collection.  I’m happy to welcome any Jefferson student or faculty member through our doors.  All it takes is an email to me to set up an appointment. I’d love to show you some of our treasures.     

There are a number of ways you can access the Collection online.  Many of our objects are available digitally through ArtStor, where we are continually adding new objects.  Our woodblock collection is available through Jefferson Digital Commons as is an online lecture I did earlier this spring with Woodmere Art Museum about our Collection’s holdings of African textiles and objects.

Make sure to follow us on Instagram, where we post about specific objects and give a behind-the-scenes look at the collection. And, we just launched a blog called Follow the Thread that everyone should check out.

Tell us about Follow the Thread! When did it launch? What can people expect to find on the blog?
We’ve been hard at work on this project for a number of months and I’m happy to say that our blog officially launched on October 8. People can expect to find the hidden stories of these objects featured on the blog. This platform really allows us to delve into these objects in ways that go beyond simply representing them visually through photos.  Our current posts focus on two dressmakers working in Pittsburg in the last decade of the 19th century, the history of the Textile Color Card Association, and the inclusion of one of our pieces in a show up now at the Cooper Hewitt Museum.  And, if you subscribe to the blog (which you can do from the blog itself), you’ll be alerted to the weekly updates and won’t miss hearing about the new discoveries we’re making every day.     

When you’re not teaching students or curating the collection, how do you like to spend your time? 
Recently I’ve been taking the time to watch old movies from the 1930s and 40s that I’ve never seen.  I’m on a real film noir kick right now. I’m also continuing to try to learn French.  Il est très dificile!

Learn more about Jade’s background, publications, and exhibits on her website.