Historic Dress
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Welcome to Historic Dress: The Center for the Study of Clothing, Costume, Fashion and Culture

This site is a pilot project for what we hope will become an online research tool for the study of women’s dress in America. In this initial stage, we focused on 19th century border design, which was chosen as a unifying theme because it allows us to present a variety of garment types. While shawls are heavily represented because they are central to understanding the topic, we also include examples of dresses, veils, fans and handbags where the border is an important element of style.

In the next stage of this project, we plan to include a broad range of women’s clothing and accessories worn in America in the period 1770 to 1930. We choose this period because it is rich in documentary evidence, both written and pictorial, and because a large number of period garments survive in museums and private collections. We are limiting the site to clothing related to the European fashion tradition because that is what most American women wore (and what is preserved) and because that limitation allows us to organize the material more readily and to go into greater depth. This means that we do not touch on the traditional indigenous clothing of Asia, Africa and the Americas unless a garment was adopted into mainstream American dress, as occurred with moccasins (from Native Americans) and shawls (from India).

The editors of Historic Dress believe that the richness of meaning inherent in dress becomes evident only when related garments, images and documents are grouped together. Therefore, while each garment posted will have its own page and description, the site is meant to be experienced primarily through the exhibits and the creation of collections.

Surviving garments are central to these groupings. While some garments are shown on mannequins, many are shown on hangers or lying flat in close-up photographs designed to call attention to some significant detail. Of nearly equal importance are fashion plates, because they provide the chronological anchor necessary for further interpretation. Other materials may include:

  • contemporary portraits and photographs
  • non-costume objects where some element of design or history connects them with clothing
  • commentary on fashion, etiquette and manufacturing technique from contemporary periodicals
  • patent documentation
  • contemporary letters and journals
  • descriptions from contemporary fiction (but not “historical fiction” written in a later time)
  • essays and commentary by scholars

Historic Dress is designed for scholars defined in the broadest sense: academics at all levels, museum curators, collections managers and conservators, theater designers, re-enactors, fashion designers, private scholars and collectors. We also welcome those who are merely dipping an exploratory toe into this fascinating field. We encourage everyone in this community at all levels of expertise to contribute whatever insights or material may help to build up our common understanding of the history of dress. Contributions may include such things as:

  • images of an article of dress
  • descriptions of making or wearing clothing from diaries or letters
  • references noting the location of another garment related to one posted on the site
  • technical information about textiles, sewing techniques, or manufacturing history
  • interpretive information in your area of specialization
  • glossaries and dictionaries
  • suggestions for
  • collections of articles of dress organized around a meaningful theme