Fashion History Websites
Do you want to get your characters’ historical dress details right? Don’t rely on fashion plates alone.
Nineteenth-century fashion plates depicted women with impossibly tiny waists and disproportionately long lower halves. Not so very unlike modern fashion magazine images which are photoshopped to remove flaws and alter body shapes. So it may be of more use for historical novelists to research fashion history from photographs of gowns that actual women wore, rather than from idealized fashion plates.
Below are some websites with fashion history images that should be especially useful for historical fiction authors. Note that additional fashion museums and institutes with wonderful collections exist besides the ones listed here. But some interesting museums do not offer much beyond a few sample images on their websites. For this article, I selected websites which offer a substantial number of images that can be viewed online for free.
This “gallery of costume” page of the museum website offers photographs of a selection of its more than 40,000 items from the 18th to 20th centuries. The museum originated with a gift from the collections of Shannon Rodgers and Jerry Silverman, New York dress manufacturers.
Each costume in the gallery is depicted in three photos, showing front, side and back views, which is a feature most other sites do not offer. Clicking on one image will allow you to enlarge it and view a brief description. If you click on the website’s “past exhibitions” page, you may find additional information, such as text describing an exhibit of 1920s flapper fashions, and a list of books which provide further research material. A past exhibit on fashion during the “Great War” includes a link to a YouTube video showing examples of gowns from that exhibit.
The V&A is known for the excellence of its fashion collection. The “Search the Collections” page allows you to search over 500,000 images from the museum’s total collections. I didn’t find a good way to browse the fashion images only, but you can use the “more search options” below the search box to get specific. Enter a beginning and ending year for your search of “evening gown 1800 to 1810″, for example. But you will need to read the descriptions carefully, as the search also retrieves gowns that were made before 1800 but altered during the 1800s. Click on an image to retrieve the descriptions. A search on “fichu” retrieved over 230 results. There are lots of examples of other accessories: searching on “tiara” brings up over 370 hits. This site will be very valuable for authors searching for period clothing examples.
The museum’s mission is to “advance knowledge of fashion through exhibitions, programs and publications.” The museum owns over 50,000 garments from the 18th century to today, and a selection of images are available online. The page for which the link is provided above breaks the images down by decade, and also lets you click on collections of accessories, menswear, and lingerie. There’s also a search box, where you can ask to see examples of “peplum,” and clicking on an individual image shows brief information about it, and offers the option to enlarge it.
This Australian institution is a “contemporary museum for excellence and innovation in applied arts and sciences.” The link above allows you to browse the collections by sets, and there are interesting costume-related sets to explore: the Joseph Box Shoe Collection (shoes from many eras collected by a London shoemaker), and the Berlei Underwear Collection and Archive (examples from the 1860s through 1980s), and the papers of Annette Kellerman, who created the one-piece swimsuit for women. You can also choose the “search” option to search for a particular garment from the entire collection.
The Costume Institute offers over 34,000 images, a subset of the Met Museum’s total collection of over 444,000 digital art images. The Costume Institute’s collection can be filtered by date, geographic location, and object type. Are you setting a story in Slovakia? Choose it from the geographic location bar on the left side of the screen, and the site will display color images of garments and accessories from that country. You can further filter by century, if you like. The site offers over 260 images of 19th century bonnets, 67 different examples of fichus, and 19 examples of shoes from before 1600. It’s a stupendous database for a historical novelist; their collections are from five continents and seven centuries, so the site is not just for American historical costume.
This website offers nearly 1,000 images of costumes and textiles from the museum’s collection from the 5th century to today. If you scroll down the page there is an option to filter the images by century. Clicking on an image will bring up a larger version with more detailed description of the object. The site offers quite a few images of accessories, including a large collection of fans. Enter “fan” in the search box to retrieve. If you need to see what grosgrain or jacquard fabrics look like, use the search box to find examples.
The McCord Museum documents the history of Montreal, and offers almost 1000 costume images online. It’s kind of awkward to find a way to browse the collection on this site, but the link above takes you to the advance search feature for the costume and textile collection. Once you are on this page, you can search by keyword, or you can choose the drop-down box called “object,” and then select the type of garment or accessory you are looking for. Choosing “bathing suit” from that box will display 17 examples. Choosing “hat” will show 40 Canadian hats, and “fan” yields 16 examples.
“Kyoto Costume Institute (KCI) systematically collects and preserves outstanding examples of western clothing through the centuries.” The link above lands you on a page with images from their collection, and on the left side of the page you can select from ranges of years. Clicking on an individual object will bring up a description, plus dimensions and fabric type.
This museum is also called Museum of Bags and Purses, which claims to be the largest of its kind in the world. The collections page displays over 50 examples of purses and handbags from 1500 to the present. If you click on the image of an object, a brief description and date will display. This is a good place to get ideas for accessories for your characters to carry. And browsing this site may entice you to book a trip to Amsterdam to see the collection in person.
Even though it doesn’t fit the fashion theme, I couldn’t resist highlighting this book I discovered recently:
Wet Britches and Muddy Boots: a History of Travel in Victorian America, by John White Jr. Indiana University Press, 2013.
The author’s preface states that the book is aimed at general readers and “covers all forms of public transport” in America except for on foot or horseback. The beauty of this work is the fact that it has so many forms of 19th century transportation described in one volume, a nice feature if your reference library shelf space is limited.
Anyone writing a novel which includes characters traveling to or within America in the 1800s will find this a valuable resource. White covers stagecoach, omnibus, streetcars, ferries, canals, steamers, ocean sail and steam, and railroad travel. Authors can find interesting story idea tidbits to work into their plots: the chapter on streetcars states what type of horse was considered best for the work, how fast the cars traveled, and discusses the belief that black horses were supposed to die early and grays weathered the heat best. The chapter on river steamers includes a plan of how the rooms were laid out on a particular ship. The section on coastal steam travel reproduces a timetable of a shipping line from Savannah to New York in 1893. A chapter on what life was like on board ship for European emigrants to the U.S. reports on topics such as sanitation in steerage and what type of food was served. Even though the book is not aimed at scholars, White consulted thousands of sources, and includes lists of suggested readings at the end of each chapter.
About the contributor: B.J. Sedlock is Lead Librarian and Coordinator of Metadata and Archives at Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio. She writes book reviews and articles for The Historical Novels Review, and has contributed to The Sondheim Review.