A knotted, halter-style collar of a vintage woven blue dress with silver charms in the threads.

At the Cornell Fashion + Textile Collection, History Is Always in Style

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With its 10,000-plus items, the archive illuminates how people dressed, worked, and lived in the past—as well as today

By Alexandra Bond ’12 & Lindsay Lennon

In a bright corridor of the Human Ecology Building, a mannequin in a display case sits at an antique sewing machine. The figure is wearing a dark blue jumpsuit with white squares, each featuring the multicolored logo of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.

In another vitrine across the hall, one mannequin is clad in an Indian classical dance outfit with a jangly gold belt, while another wears a white polyester Elvis costume dripping with rhinestones and silver stars.

A 1970s-era Elvis Presley impersonator costume with red and blue rhinestones and silver stars.
A 1970s-era Elvis costume.

An assortment of T-shirts displaying faces of music icons like John Lennon, Aretha Franklin, and Taylor Swift hang from the walls.

The items, part of an exhibit called “Sounding Fashion,” are meant to illustrate how fashion makes noise—either literally, as in the soft clicking of pearl dangle earrings, or figuratively, like the union logos of the early-20th-century garment workers who fought for better conditions and a living wage.

The pieces represent just a handful of the 10,000-plus items in the Cornell Fashion + Textile Collection. Housed in a recently revamped facility in Human Ecology, the collection—more than a century in the making—contains garments, shoes, accessories, and other pieces dating as far back as the 1700s.

“These items tell important stories that might not be recorded in words,” says Denise Green ’07, the collection’s director and an associate professor of human centered design. “You can tell a lot about the way people lived by looking at their clothes.”

Originally known as the Costume and Textile Collection, the archive started with a small assortment of items that Beulah Blackmore—hired in 1915 as Cornell’s first faculty member on the subject—used for teaching purposes.

You can tell a lot about the way people lived by looking at their clothes.

Collection director Denise Green ’07

In 1936, she cashed out her life insurance policy and, with a small contribution from the Department of Home Economics, took a sabbatical to travel the world and collect indigenous apparel and fabrics, adding them to the 19th-century clothing she’d already begun curating.

“Back then, students didn’t travel like they do today,” says Green, “so she was determined to bring world cultures to her students through the garments.”

A large costume storage area.
A portion of the collection’s recently renovated storage facility in Human Ecology.

Today, the collection—about a fifth of which comes from non-Western nations including Nigeria, Nepal, and China—has grown into a wide-ranging plethora of donated items. All costs associated with exhibitions, accessioning, cataloguing, and preservation are funded by grants and gifts.

The collection’s holdings fall into three main categories: Western clothing, textiles, and accessories; ethnographic garments and accessories from around the world; and functional apparel. The first group comprises the largest number of items—including gowns from the 1800s to the present, dozens of pairs of blue jeans, and a soft pink Juicy Couture tracksuit from 2006.

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Functional apparel is the catalog’s smallest category, but contains particularly intriguing items, including a women’s U.S. Marine Corps uniform from the 1940s, a late-2000s firefighter jacket with reflective stripes, and a yellow-and-black quilted lining from a 1970s paramedic coat.

“People tend to want to conserve things that hold the most value, like their wedding dress,” says Samantha Stern ’17, who majored in fashion design and management and worked in the collection all four years of undergrad. “In terms of historical significance, though, sometimes work clothing or what people wore on a day-to-day basis are actually the most important things to preserve and understand.”

A major renovation of the collection’s nearly 1,500-square-foot, humidity- and climate-controlled facility was completed in summer 2019. Managed by the Department of Human Centered Design, it serves as a resource for teaching, research, and exhibitions.

“When you walk into the collection, it’s overwhelming,” says Sian Brown, MA ’20, who curated a 2020 exhibit—for which she interviewed Black women fashion designers from around North America about their experiences—that featured several items from the collection. “You can almost feel the history of all the items.”

While the Elvis jumpsuit almost certainly belonged to an impersonator rather than the King himself, other items were sported by public figures.

A brown firefighter uniform with yellow reflective stripes.
A firefighter's uniform from 2008.

They include a scalloped judicial collar with decorative stones worn by Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’54 on the Supreme Court bench and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s silvery blue evening gown, satin slippers, and fox-fur stole from her husband’s second inaugural ball.

The collection typically hosts three exhibitions per year in its gallery on the terrace level of Human Ecology. (During the pandemic, when campus was largely closed to the public, virtual and hybrid shows filled the gap.)

Fashion fans unable to visit in person can peruse the entire catalogue digitally, thanks to a meticulously detailed online database. Temporary exhibitions are often brought out to events, like Homecoming, galas, and screenings at Cornell Cinema. 

While exhibits are the public’s most accessible touchpoints to the collection, pre-arranged visits to its facility are available to student and faculty researchers. It also conducts tours for local school districts, Girl Scout troops, community organizations, and alumni groups.

“There’s such an expansive range in the collection, from historical to more contemporary and across many different cultures,” says Brown. “If you’re interested in fashion history, there’s really something for everyone.”

Do you have an item that could be of interest to the collection? Send them an email.

Top: A silk gown from the 1980s. (All images provided.)

Published February 13, 2023


  1. Joan Hens Johnson, Class of 1965

    Alex and Lindsey, this is marvelous. What a rich collection for research and exhibitions. I enjoyed seeing one of the exhibitions on a visit to campus a few years ago. I have forwarded this article to a young friend studying fashion in NYC Thank you! Joan

  2. Dr. MarianAnn J Montgomery, Class of 1982

    Thanks for sharing so many wonderful pictures of the collection.

  3. Visit the very moving current exhibit in the Human Ecology Building T-Level display cases curated by student Colette Rose Jarrell ’25 called “Life After: Material Manifestations of Loss.” Not only did she use items in the Cornell Fashion + Textile Collection for this exhibit, Colette also acquired loans from other collections, including Cornell’s Kheel Center, and from a host of outside artists including Jon Crispin (US), Isabelle McDonald (US), Poppy Nash (UK), and Mary Burgess (Australia). The Cornell Collection is an amazing springboard for student creativity and exploration.

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