Inquire Within: Fashion Research Online

Part 2 in an ongoing series. Read part 1 here.

Since recognizing that curiosity for fashion research, you have hopefully now developed it into a healthy research query.

What began as “I wonder” is now a fully formed to-do list:

I’m going to find out x, y, and z
I need a variety of types of resources—some combination of articles, books, primary sources, opinion, images
I need reliable resources that I can cite with pride
I will start by looking into several fields of study (perhaps art history, business, sociology, etc).

The world is your oyster! Before you head to the library, though, have you figured out what awaits you online? There are so many more (and better) resources than your first 2 million Google search results, certainly. You just need to know how to delve further. To start finding more interesting results, it’s time to get strategic.

There is still an enormous amount of high quality web content that cannot be found, directly at least, on a search engine. In general, it’s good to remember that journal articles, records of archive holdings, and library catalog records might not be found in a basic web search. Skipping directly to secondary search websites also ensures the quality of your findings. A Google Image search for “cloche hat,” for example, retrieves 130,000 results, yet a quick search of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Collection returns 2,000 records, all cataloged with details like date, culture, materials, and a description of any labels or markings. Less is certainly more in this case: the value there is in both the amount of detail and the reliability of the institution.

Review your questions, particularly the fields you planned to search. What types of institutions and organizations would be the keepers, organizers, and creators of this information on the internet?

Museums and Archives

Museums of all types and sizes are digitizing their collections for public searching. This is particularly useful for costume and textile research since the majority of collections are usually in storage both for protection and due to lack of display space. You might find more (and more specific) results at large costume collections like The Victoria & Albert Museum, The Indianapolis Museum of Art, and The Museum at FIT (available Spring 2012). If your search is very specific, or you need as much material as possible, be inclusive of smaller collections that might also be of help. The Costume Society of America links to most North American costume collections by region (though not indexed by content or focus).

If you are interested in archival items that are not necessarily costume-specific, The Repository of Primary Sources will direct you to institutions that have primary sources (manuscripts, archives, rare books, historical photographs, etc.). There is no subject index, so this is strictly to see what sort of archives might be in your region. Even the smallest local history collection may have advertisements, mail-order clothing catalogs, newspapers, and the like.

Academic Libraries

Sizeable universities that have any manner of fashion or costume program (and even some that don’t), provide online research guides for students. Content on sites like these is the best of the best, curated and updated by librarians to help students, staff and fashion professionals maneuver fashion and costume on the web—not a simple task. Obviously you won’t have access to all listed resources without a password, but you can also expect quality web resources and suggested books.

The Fashion Institute of Technology, for example, has a wide variety of subject-specific research guides (make sure to notice the tabs under each one). Kent State University includes a list of resources specifically on Clothing and Costume History. Gimbel Library at Parsons The New School has a nice guide with divisions for researching a particular brand/company, designer, garment, style or era.


Public libraries generally provide free online access to thousands of magazines, journals and reference books through online databases. While it may take a visit to the library to learn how to gain access from home, that website should be one of your first stops.

With or without your library card, you always have access these resources:

    OAIster, a collection of 25 million records from over 1,000 institutions worldwide. OAIster provides open access to digitized photographs, journal articles, theses, research papers, audio and video files, and more.

    WorldCat is your window to North American and many international library holdings (books, audio, video). Unlike OAIster’s contents, you won’t be able to read the books on Worldcat—but if a book exists on a topic, this is the place to find it.

    The Directory of Open Access Journals aims to provide access to open access scientific and scholarly journals.

    HighWire, through Stanford University, has done the best job to date of creating a one-stop shop for scholarly publication—many free, some not.

    JSTOR provides older articles for free. Finding content that is both helpful and free on JSTOR can be like finding a needle in a haystack. Do check if your library has access to this or a similar general database.


Any curated list on general or particular subjects could be called a directory. These are created by librarians, museum curators, academic research assistants, and passionate individuals to narrow broad searches. One of the best general directories is IPL2, a collection of websites for reference and research chosen by librarians for quality and validity. Fashion specific directories include The Fashion Encyclopedia (make sure you click through to the full entries, which include references for further research), Fashion Resources at the Digital Librarian, The Costumers Manifesto, and Fashion-Era.

You can only search the internet to a certain extent before you will need to round out your search with other formats and expertise. Then you’ll return to the screen with articles or books by your side to cross-reference and build a stronger body of information. Now you know what is at your fingertips. To see what is within easy grasp, head to the library. More on that in the next Inquire Within!

text by Christy Shannon Smirl
graphic by Rachel Stevens

2 thoughts on “Inquire Within: Fashion Research Online

  1. Nice work! I love how you highlight how important it is to first define what it is you want to find. It baffles me how easy it is to forget that step. Thanks for all the fashion resources. You think any of these would help me find that one smoking jacket I lost in college? I miss that thing!

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