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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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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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?
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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

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