Inquire Within: Fashion Research at Academic and Special Libraries

Part 4 in an ongoing series.

At this point in your fashion research, you have hopefully first spent many hours exhausting your options at the public library. Your next step may be a more specialized or academic library. Depending on what sort of institution you approach, you may or may not find resources and collections that are more current, unique, specific, peer-reviewed, or downright heady. However, they might come at a cost: application, fees, limited access, travel, formalities, or just getting through the gatekeepers. While all of that is probably worth the effort, this is your last reminder: are you certain you haven’t missed any gems of research options back at the public branch down the street? If not, do proceed!

Private or “special” libraries are privately funded, yes, but public access is generally allowed if not welcomed. There are several types of institutions to pursue, depending on your topic and the breadth of your search. A web search for museums, colleges, universities, or historical societies in your proximity should give you an idea of the collections nearby. On the front webpage of such organizations, skim for words like library, collection, or information centre. Remember not to confuse the word ‘research’ in academic settings for the more specific noun (think data, theory and hypothesis, etc). Sites generally clearly state who the library serves and how to gain access. While some collections may have stricter access policies than others, they are in place to protect the collection, save staff resources, and ensure the best of the best is available to their primary audience first. If you are determined enough, you may be able to talk your way through the toughest of policies and access the incredible resources protected by them.

Academic Libraries and Special Collections
These multidisciplinary collections of resources are built around the fields of study available at an associated institute of higher learning. If there is no emphasis on fashion or the fine arts in the institution, resources on clothing may be less prominent or may fall under other categories. Just because fashion isn’t taught or researched at this school doesn’t mean there isn’t a wealth of fashion resources associated with, say, a history or theatre department. A school of fine arts, on the other hand, may have a librarian specifically devoted to fashion resources and research, or even a separate library for the school of fashion.

Libraries, archives, and special collections at colleges and universities are of course intended to serve their student body, faculty, and alumni primarily. But these institutions are in the business of building, organizing, and sharing knowledge, so access can be fairly open. When perusing a website for access information, keep an eye out for certain hours or times of year that you might be more or less welcome (or when a library might be closed for spring break). A guest pass may be required, and may also let you access things you normally couldn’t without a student ID. Get an idea of how different schools provide public access on library pages like the Rhode Island School of Design, the University of Amsterdam, Kansas State University, and the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles.
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Strutting It: ESMM Grads Show Their Stuff at Perseption

The other week I got the opportunity to see Perseption, the final collections from UQÀM’s École Supérieure de Mode de Montréal’s (aka Montreal Graduate School of Fashion Design) graduating class. Watching new designers before they get established is always exciting, and I’m clearly not the only one who thinks this way—when I arrived at the venue, it was nearly full. It was so full, in fact, that spectators were already finding standing room along the walls. Unlike most fashion shows, this one didn’t have a typical runway; instead, it was diamond shaped with four runways emanating from the centre, creating a chaotic, almost disorienting effect as models came and went from all directions.

The evening opened with Coupé à Vif by Duc C. Nguyên, which was all about playing with curves and creating volume where it’s unexpected. The red linen dresses were classic in shape but had geometric tweaks, a bustle here, hip triangles there. The look that got my attention was an A-line dress that left the model’s breasts exposed. I liked the edginess of it and her daringness to pull it off. All of the pieces were well-crafted and pretty, but this one made me think Nguyên could hold his own with the big leagues.

Mélanie Poupart showed a hard/soft mix (a tailored skirt paired with a draped top, for example) in her collection Hi, My Name Is… which took inspiration from grief. I quite liked the floaty organza clutches that the models carried down the runway. The final model, dressed in a figure hugging, long, white dress, came out on pointe and seemed to sum up the fluidity the designer was going for.
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Inquire Within: Fashion Research at Your Public Library

Part 3 in an ongoing series.

How is it coming, that question of yours on the history of dress, or fashion theory, or a designer of years past? Having dredged the web, your frame of reference has hopefully taken form. You have some keywords, some context, and a direction in which you would like to take this search. I suppose you should be off to the library?

If you don’t yet have a library card, remember to check your public library’s website or make a call and determine what you will need to get one (likely just photo identification and proof of residency). For an effective library visit, nose through the website a bit further and see if you can get an idea of services available. When are opening hours? Will you head to the closest neighborhood branch or would it be worth taking a trip to the main branch for quick access to a larger collection?

While a Reference or Information Desk in a cavernous, silent room of books and computers can be intimidating, assume that it is someone’s job there to help you—to help anyone and everyone—with research. This interaction should be a conversation, and it may take time. It could take the form of a librarian advising or guiding you in your search or doing some further research for you and getting back to you, if necessary.

Be ready to clarify what it is that you’re looking for, and remember that some information might not be where you expect it to be. A good rule of thumb is to focus on the information you are looking for as opposed to specific resources (ask for a book on shoe history and there may not be anything, but explain your search on the stiletto in the 1980s and the research options may actually broaden). If you are hoping to find multiple resources, only want scholarly articles, or just need some graphics, say so from the start. A librarian should be like a guide and a teacher—they definitely don’t know everything, but they are resourceful. If you are told no, there’s nothing, be persistent and ask what they suggest your next step be. A good researcher (and a helpful librarian) will assume that there is an answer. It just might take some work to find it.
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The Plus Size Problem

If you were to sift through the selection of most plus-size clothing—that is, if you are clever enough to find stores that offer plus-sizes at all—you would be hard-pressed not to see their similarities to the giant blankets used to hide cars on The Price is Right. “There’s something big under there, but what could it be?”

Plus-size clothing is often an aimless, outdated attempt at draping fabric over top of women in order to hide the parts of their bodies society has deemed unworthy. It is misguidedly targeted toward women who apparently want to cover every inch of skin with layers of tapestry. Plus-size often doesn’t account for women who embrace their curves and fashion-centric individuals who want to look vibrant and make a statement with their clothing. For too long, plus-size clothing has been about covering up, hiding out, and blending in. It is safe. It is quiet. And most of all, it inexplicably ignores a huge part of its market.

Before a plus-size store will decide to incorporate a trend in its line-up, it waits to see what sells in the standard stores (after they fashion their ideas off of the runway). By the time it recognizes the successful trends and commissions creation for plus-size, you can already say goodbye to the skinny jeans, braided belts and riding boots.
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