Inquire Within: Fashion and Research

Do you remember that moment when you realized you really liked fashion? That transition when your interest in dress, adornment and clothing went from a passive form of enjoyment to an unquenchable curiousity?

Perhaps it happened with an article that gave you the history and context of a particular style, a detail on a pair of pants that you knew must be modeled on something rather old but couldn’t quite place, a list of required classes for a fashion degree, obscure titles cited in the pages of magazines (including, ahem, Worn Fashion Journal). You found questions you never knew you could ask. Suddenly, it wasn’t enough to put on the dress; you needed to know its conceptual and cultural story. There are the questions you start to obsessively ask:

Did fashion play a part in any of the suffragist movements? Why does the human brain like repeating patterns, and why do we put them on our clothing? What are the socioeconomic demographics behind modern hipster fashion? How many shoes would your average Victorian lady have owned in her lifetime? What about her maid? And why? And where did we get that rule that horizontal stripes are not slimming?

These are the questions that have been plaguing many of the fashion students, journalists, history majors, artists, and other individuals amongst you. What are your research options? Who are the gatekeepers to the information you might be interested in? How far could you take your search? With this series, we aim to help you find the next steps, to get your vintage brogue-clad foot into the door of fashion research opportunities.

Part 1: Fashion and Research
Mapping Your Path

Before jumping into a fashion research project, focus and develop your search. Knowing precisely what you’re asking will give your research direction and give you confidence when asking for help. Sometimes, what seems like the obvious is often the most overlooked. We all know how exciting geeking out over fashion research is, but make sure you don’t skip the first steps.

Ask the smart questions
Let’s say you’ve been wondering about hosiery. What about it compels you? Are you asking about its invention? Modern production? Cultural implications in one decade or another? Those seams up the back of the leg in the 1940s? All of the above? Keep a list of synonymous keywords for your search (when there is nothing to be found on cravats, you’ll be reminded to broaden your search to ties or neckties).

Know the type of information that’s out there
You are fascinated by designer Madeleine Vionnet, but want to find more beyond the first page of Google results. The next step depends on how far along you are in your research. Keep an open mind to types of first and second-hand documents out there: book-length biographies, short encyclopedia entries on her life, personal papers and sketches, academic articles on the designer’s greater impact on 20th century design, and photographs of her work are all great resources to keep an eye out for.

Figure out where you’re going
Depending on your question, fields like anthropology, sociology, history, art history, literature, and even some of the sciences might be your best hope for the information you seek. Typing the word “fashion” into your keyword search could derail you from a wealth of information. If your question involves fabric dye, for example, your search might meander through field studies of indigenous cultures, a review of colours depicted in 18th century portraiture, the chemistry of tannins used to cure leather, or a study of D.I.Y. social networking sites instructing on dye techniques today.

Keep your audience in mind
Is the purpose of your research personal, professional, or academic? Will you keep track of sources to refer to later, or possibly cite them in your writing? In an academic or professional setting, the validity of your findings is key. Even if not required to cite sources, a wise researcher is able to on request. If using images for publication, remember that you may need copyright permission.

Documenting your search also serves as a trail of breadcrumbs: should your search peter out in one direction, you can go back and take it in another. If you write a blog entry on the topic but later decide to write a full-length dissertation, your notes should be thorough enough that you don’t have to repeat your search. Keep in mind that quality resources do not only inform, but also direct you elsewhere for further information. Internet resources, academic papers and reference books are often valuable not for their content, but for the content they direct you to. The very question you are working on has probably been asked before, in one way or another. What did this author find, and where? Become a master of bookmarking your web results, whether in a web browser folder or on a bookmarking site like

In asking these questions about your question, you will be adding some depth and breadth to it. Giving yourself some options, and plenty of room for creative searching. Keep notes of everything you can, and return to them if your search is frustrating. Treat your question as an equation: concise and deliberate. Next you’ll determine where to start looking!

Keep posted on for part 2, coming soon!

text by Christy Shannon Smirl
graphic by Rachel Stevens

4 thoughts on “Inquire Within: Fashion and Research

  1. i shared this on twitter already, but i think this is invaluable advice. i was so disheartened last week when i read a post on independent fashion bloggers which recommended using WIKIPEDIA to research fashion history:

    “An era in history. A lot of fashion bloggers DON’T have fashion history degrees! Get elbow deep in some Wikipedia and text books and write about the clothing from some of your favorite periods.”

    this is a great antithesis to that method of “research,” all the while being realistic. i complained a bit in the comments and this was the response i got: “Wikipedia is a fantastic source for sources though! If you’re on Amazon & find 2,000 books on fashion, where do you begin?”

    the journalist and historian in me shuddered.

    in short: GREAT POST!!!

  2. Yay methodologies! This is fantastic advice for research in any field really. “Even if not required to cite sources, a wise researcher is able to on request.” I love that so much, and I think its something to keep in mind even in conversation.

    One of the best research methods I learned this year may seem obvious, but was uncharted territory for me: talking to a librarian. It’s really great to have someone to bounce ideas off of and come up with interesting key words. Hell, they know of databases I hadn’t even begun to hope of.

  3. It’s great to know that I’m not the only one who loves classical research methods :)

    By the way, do you know if there is something published about suffragettes and fashion, or your example is not related to any research in particular? I’ve been thinking about starting a research in fashion and british suffragettes for the last 5 years -it’s my unresolved matter-, and it would be lovely -or extremely unlovely- to discover that’s already done!!

  4. Up with research, methodologies, standards! Thanks for these comments.

    Garconniere, I so love your blog! I’m flattered by your response. I’ll write about Wikipedia in posts to come.

    Hillary, I think your librarian epiphany is key to the research process. As a public librarian, I’m surprised by how few people think of the library as a go-to for questions big and small, let alone feel comfortable there. Many hours and much energy can be saved if you spend 15 minutes going over your research interests with a librarian!

    Sara, my example was not drawn from specific research. I love your idea. It does sound like your first research step would be to determine what has already been published… basically whether (and how far) historians and women’s studies scholars have delved into the details of suffragettes’ dress to date. That would provide a strong foundation and some direction for your research. I’d imagine that, even if there is already a lot out there, there is always more to be said, or a different stance to take on a topic!

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