Fashion History Study Resources- A Quick Overview

Happy Monday!

I wanted to post a special little post today, since we recently addressed studying fashion history through photographs. I want to share some of my favorite resources with you.

I started studying fashion and costume history in my early teens. I know, I was strange. I would *love* to spend hours upon hours researching and finding out more about Edwardian fashions, specifically.  My mom would drop me off at the library where I’d scour books, microfilm, and anything I could to find more about fashions I fell in love with due to movies and tv shows like Avonlea or Somewhere Before Time.  Of course, this was before the internet so most of my research was done in libraries or hands on.

With so many of us totally addicted to fashions of the early 1900s this year, I’m feeling very reminiscent about getting back to the roots of what started me on my path to fashion history and vintage clothing. I’ve got my favorite resources I want to share with you!

First off, if you’re interested in studying fashion history don’t limit yourself to what you can find online. There, I said it.  I learned MUCH more from going back to actual source material than I did from articles, etc.   If you’re a newbie I suggest going to the library and checking out some books on fashion history. It’s important to start with your timeline.  Look at silhouettes and become familiar with them. See how the silhouette changed throughout the decades.  Then, when you figure out what specific time period or decade you prefer, start digging deeper.  Luckily for us, there are a lot of knowledgable people who are now making these sorts of posts and information avaiable online like they never were before for the purpose of research or because people want to share their collections and finds.  But I still suggest looking at a timeline, looking at the silhouettes, then start your search depending on what time period you’re interested in doing first. For many of us, that year is 1912 this year.  I always love studying 100 years before the year I’m in for some reason.  In our 2008 wedding we set the time period in 1908.  Now we’re in 2012, so I’m drawn to 1912.  Plus, there’s all sorts of fun things happening online and in costuming communities to do with that year, especially since the centennial of the Titanic’s sinking is this year.

I’m getting way off track here, so let me veer somewhat back on track.  My main emphasis of fashion history study has always been from 1900-1950.  I don’t know why, that’s just what I like.  Most of my reference materials I have collected and know about fall within that age range.  I would like to hear of you who study further back, however, about where you source information.

The basics:

The Library– Yup, the library is still a happening place if you want to study.  I suggest looking up costume reference books.  They usually have them in two sections- one section you can check out the books and take them home.  The other books are in the reference section and must be used at the library. This, in my opinion, is where the extra yummy books are.  Don’t be embarrased, just sit yourself down with a notebook and go at it.  I usually bring my ipod with me so I can tune out whatever’s going on around me.

In the reference section, especially if you’re lucky to live in a large older city or have a large university or community college by you, will also be bound issues of old magazines.  Sometimes they are put in the back and you will have to ask for them, but don’t be shy. When I went to visit a friend in Chicago I spent a few days in the library.  In exchange for them holding my license I got to pour over original bound issues of 1910s Harpers Bazaar magazines.  I returned the book and got my license back. Pretty awesome trade, if you ask me.  Also in the reference section, usually at colleges, are microfilm. On microfilm you can research back through old magazines or newspapers.  We’ll address this in the next section, but just know that they are there and your librarian can help you feed the microfilm into the machine. Usually you can make photocopies for a fee from the microfilm machines.  This is how I started my fashion history research, and it’s fabulous to read original source material and be able to photocopy it to use at home.

Newspapers  Like I just mentioned, you can find old newspapers at some libraries on microfilm (and probably computers, these days).  You may also be able to access online newspaper archives through your college you attend or are an alumni of by going through the library home page.  If this is not an option for you, you can subscribe online to services like the Newspaper Archive.  The Newspaper Archive does not have the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times, when last I subscribed, but there are still scores of old fashion articles on there.  You can usually access those particular newspapers through colleges or universities and at larger city libraries.  Of particular interest, the New York Times ran a fashion spread in the Sunday paper going back at least until the 1890s.  You can see a weekly report of fashions with black and white illustrations.  In the early 1900s this feature was called “What the Well-Dressed Woman is Wearing and was written by Anne Rittenhouse.  I’m not sure how the name of the segment and author changed throughout the years, but you can be assured that every Sunday paper had a fashion section.  If you’re on a searchable database you can look up articles by date and keyword to help you in your quest.

Books  Heaven knows I could go on for ages about  my favorite books. I’m not going to- I’ll have to save that for another post. Just as a starter, if you’re interested in clothing and costume construction, I’m going to suggest the books by Janet Arnold and Jane Hunnisett.  Both are EXCELLENT resources.  Other books I really enjoy are the Costume in Detail books (composed of black and white sketches of actual garments) and the books by Frances Grimble which reproduce period cutting manuals for Victorian and Edwardian styles.  I also love old clothing construction and sewing books, notably by Mary Brooks Picken.  If you have favorite fashion or costume books please leave a comment letting others know!

Magazines  Some libraries will have bound issues of period magazines, as mentioned above, but if they don’t you can start your own reference collection.  There are three types of magazines I usually think of when having to do with fashion history:

High Fashion:   Like Vogue and Harpers Bazaar.  Very expensive and elite fashions made by couturiers or ready to wear companies.  There were the most fashion forward magazines and were not what the average woman could afford, though these magazines generally did set the styles.  These magazines were a 20th century phenomenon- older centuries, I believe, looked to ladies magazines for fashion styles.

Ladies Magazines: Like Ladies Home Journal, McCall’s, Woman’s Home Companion, The Delineator, etc.   These magazines addressed the average woman and often were paired with a home sewing pattern company, so the fashion spreads were actually illustrations for patterns to purchase and make yourself or have others make for you.  Some magazines had a combination of pattern fashion spreads and ready to wear fashion spreads.  These magazines dealt with fashions but also with the home, cooking, and included stories of fiction and non-fiction.  For Victorian fashions I usually look for Peterson’s or Godey’s Ladies Book (or just Ladies Book for the copies from the earlier part of the 1800s).

Sewing or Homemaking Magazines:  Like Modern Priscilla or Needlecraft, these magazines aimed mostly at those who made their own clothing and practiced needlecrafts like embroidery, knitting, etc.  There were both recipies and suggestions for the home and fashion and gift suggestions.

Mail Order Catalogs– Mail Order catalogs were addressed to the average person and sold mostly ready to wear garments.  These are a great resource to have to see a wide variety of fashions which were available at any given time in history.  Although I don’t personally know of any libraries which have mail order catalog collections, you can start your own collection or purchase reprints from companies like Dover Books.  There are also some sellers online who have downloadable PDF catalogs.  Sense and Sensibility has some available and I also have downloads in my store (currently I have a 1913 catalog, with more to be added in the future).  We most often think of companies like Sears and Montgomery Wards when we think of mail order catalogs but there were specific catalogs that only dealt with clothing like the National Suit and Cloak Company (later National Bellas Hess), the Chicago Mail Order Company, and Lane Bryant- among scores of others.

Museums–  If you have a museum nearby with a fashion collection, count yourself lucky!  Museums are a great place to see existing historical garments.  Most museums have online collections so you can see photographs. Some museums even have a fashion library which you can visit by appointment. I have heard from others that you are usually able to call and make an appointment to privately view and study articles of clothing but I have not done this myself. It is certainly something on my wish list!

So there we have it! Those are my favorite places to research historic fashion and clothing.  I hope you have found these leads useful as you start out or continue your journey with fashion history. Please leave me a comment if you have any additional resources you’d like to add!


I also wanted to thank you all for your super nice comments on my bustle dress!! THANK YOU!!! It was so much fun to wear. I hope I get to take other pictures of projects I finished soon.  I’ve still got two projects from last year and I just finished a Victorian skirt to go with a few pieces I finished over 5 years ago. My, how time flies!

12 Comments on Fashion History Study Resources- A Quick Overview

  1. Janey
    January 9, 2012 at 1:48 pm (13 years ago)

    This is fantastic! Thanks for sharing the resources!

  2. Stephanie
    January 9, 2012 at 2:33 pm (13 years ago)

    I am lucky enough to be a student and have access to pretty much any book in the state. I did some old fashioned book research back when I first got into vintage. Guess now that I like some new periods I should hit the books again!

  3. Caitlin H
    January 9, 2012 at 2:36 pm (13 years ago)

    I work at a provincial archives in Canada and one of my favourite parts of the job is when I have to look for things in newspapers so I can look at old clothing ads. :)

  4. EJ
    January 9, 2012 at 2:41 pm (13 years ago)

    Thanks for the wonderful, informative post! I am a reference librarian in a public library, and I want to echo your advice not to be shy about using library resources or asking for reference materials that may be kept in a back room somewhere. Libraries are service organizations, and they exist to share their resources. The folks who work there want you to be able to find the information you need — and this isn’t just limited to retrieving back issues of magazines for you.

    Ask the reference librarians if they have ideas for where you might find the images or information you’re looking for. They are more familiar with their library’s collection than anyone, so they might be able to suggest things you would otherwise miss. Also, they *love* to help people with research. Trust me, it’s true!

  5. HeidiAphrodite
    January 9, 2012 at 4:05 pm (13 years ago)

    Anything by Valerie Steele, Harold Koda, John Peacock (with a caveat that he is based in Great Britain and will have a slightly different view of fashion), Anne Hollander, and James Laver. There are also the fashions of a decade series (“Fashions of the 1940s”, etc) and the Sears catalog reprints (I think they’re called “Everyday Fashions of the [decade]”). The book that got me into this 20+ year passion was “The Encyclopedia of World Costume” by Doreen Yarwood. It is a lovely book and worth your money if you can find it used.

  6. Jill
    January 9, 2012 at 8:32 pm (13 years ago)

    Great post! I agree…there’s nothing some good “old fashioned” library and primary source research!

  7. Casey
    January 10, 2012 at 6:01 am (13 years ago)

    That’s it–next time I’m at the local library (a really extensive and amazing place–I was stunned when I first went in to get my library card recently! :)), I’m going to see if I can hunt down some resources with the librarian’s help for various projects I’m contemplating. Thanks for sharing all these tips, Lauren!

  8. MyVintageVistions27
    January 10, 2012 at 7:13 am (13 years ago)

    I can’t agree more! Libraries books and old newspapers offer some of the best resources out there, and of course original clothing. I was fortunate enough to become involved with my local historical society when I was in high school and had the chance to see a lot of vintage and antique fashions up close. Nothing beats the real thing!

  9. ConstantlyAlice
    January 10, 2012 at 7:19 am (13 years ago)

    Great tips! Avonlea was my FAVORITE show when I was in my teens. My Mom and I used to watch it religiously ;)

  10. Heide
    January 10, 2012 at 10:52 am (13 years ago)

    Love the vintage ad you posted! Those colors are beautiful.
    I have always loved the Dover Publications ( ) series Everyday Fashions of the (insert decade). I think they also have some 1900s catalog reprints.

  11. Isis
    January 10, 2012 at 11:37 am (13 years ago)

    Excellent post! The Net is a wonderful source for information, but NOT the one and only, which I have foudn that many people seems to think.

  12. mala_14
    January 10, 2012 at 1:11 pm (13 years ago)

    I recently “discovered” my university’s library. ;) It is a wonderful resource! I love just browsing through the sections containing fashion history and such. Unfortunately, my city’s costume museum closed its doors last year. So disappointing!

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