Where it all comes together . . . historic clothing meets new librarianship

This past March I found myself in a room with an amazing team of scholars, beginning to plan a project of epic proportions for the historic dress community: the project that has become HistoricDress.org.

(some examples of the diverse materials providing context for objects at HistoricDress.org/omeka)

This project is where several seemingly diverse interests all come together for me. For over twenty years I have been studying the history of clothing, as a costume designer and costume technician for theatre, dance, and film. In my work as a costume technician at Vassar College, I am also responsible for maintaining a small but significant research collection of historic clothing dating back to the 1830’s. My access to the objects in this collection has been an inspiration to me, ever since I worked with the collection when I was an undergraduate at Vassar myself. I seek every opportunity to share these objects with current Vassar students and open their eyes to how such objects can connect them to people in the past – the people who made or wore these articles of clothing.

But the opportunities are far too rare. So, in 2002, I began to seek ways to share Vassar’s collection online, to widen our audience and improve student access. Our digital project has grown slowly but steadily, with students helping every step of the way. I have taken advantage of every chance to learn about how better to build such a digital collection, and along the way I’ve discovered my inner librarian. I’ve become passionate not only about sharing Vassar’s costume collection, but also about sharing any kind of artifact collection. I’m dissatisfied with the way that objects are currently represented online, lacking detail and context. I know that instructors in many different disciplines would love to teach with artifacts, but don’t have access to physical collections and find digital collections insufficient. I’m determined to help digital collections of artifacts to live up to their fullest potential. To that end, I’ve begun to pursue a second Master’s degree (after my MFA in Costume Design) in Library and Information Science, with a focus on Digital Libraries. Yes, HistoricDress.org is the perfect opportunity to hone my new librarian skills, while working with dress history content about which I am equally passionate.

So, back to that infamous day last March: I met Nancy Rexford for the first time that day, and learned about how she had learned about costume history – by following the premise from one of her mentors of “Like with Like” – sorting unknown objects and looking at their similarities, and differences, to place them in history and in context.

Nancy spent many years and traveled many miles to examine garments in collections around the country, expanding her comparisons of like with like to include objects on opposite sides of the country. Her encyclopedic knowledge of objects from the history of fashion is based on this exposure to diverse objects in collections, large and small, across the country. But how rare is that kind of exposure? Nancy has also spent years collecting fashion illustrations and other research materials and grouping them into binders by subject and chronology. How rare is that specific organization?

Luckily, Nancy is not satisfied with that knowledge just being in her own head, and her own research archive, and she’s not satisfied with the traditional monograph format to capture this wealth of information. She recognizes that in this digital age, the technology of digital libraries provides the potential for a wide variety of resources to be accessible in one place, yet used in different ways as needed by diverse community members. Digital images and digital tools defy space and time, allowing us to view several objects from far flung regions of the country, all on our screen at one time. As Nancy shares her research with the public, it’s as if we now have access to all those collections across the country. But also beyond that, by creating this resource online, we open up a space where other researchers and other institutions can also share more materials, beyond Nancy’s initial materials. Our ability to view “Like with Like” can grow and grow.

Indeed, when I think about it, the principle of “Like with Like” is what got me excited about digital projects in the first place: the idea that with standardized records, my students and I could easily find other museum objects online similar to (or related to) whatever object we were studying, to help place it in context. Yes, both museum collections and private research collections can someday be accessible in the same way that collections of books in libraries are now, if all objects are cataloged using some shared standard formats. HistoricDress.org is pushing at some boundaries to explore this potential, creating a truly inter-disciplinary, inter-institutional resource that brings transparency to research that would otherwise be hidden.

I’m proud, and honored, to be a part of this incredible team.

Arden Kirkland specializes in building digital collections for teaching with material culture. As Costumer for the Drama Department at Vassar College, she is also a curator of Vassar’s research collection of historic clothing. While pursuing a Masters of Library and Information Science at Syracuse University, she is building upon her MFA in Costume Design to promote inter-disciplinary and inter-institutional approaches to teaching with artifacts.

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5 Responses to Where it all comes together . . . historic clothing meets new librarianship

  1. Marla Miller says:

    So exciting to see posts from my clothing history heroes (Joan, as a Wisconsin girl myself, ’twas fun to see your ref to mythologies about the “olden days”). We will definitely be in touch as the project evolves!

  2. Joan Severa says:

    I am thrilled to know about this project! Had there been such a resource for me as a young Curator, I would have been spared years of trying to convince my Administrative staff that period clothing is materia culture at least as important as the study of furnishings and other hardgoods. I was told that “Wisconsin women settlers knew nothing of Godey’s Ladies Book, and did not know about fashion. After all, there were BEARS here!” But that was early in the game. I relied heavily on Nancy Rexford for friendship and full use of her collections and knowledge, when I planned my books. I learned so much from her.

  3. Lynne Bassett says:

    Hello All! Kiki and I first started talking about this exciting project three years ago (or more) and I am *very* happy to see it getting off the ground! It might be helpful for you to review the costume cataloging project that I worked on at the Connecticut Historical Society, under the direction of Dr. Susan Schoelwer (now curator at Mount Vernon). We made it a priority to be able to integrate the library and material culture collections–we used TMS because it allowed us to cross reference the two types of collections. I also tried to think of library-type subject headings for the costumes I was cataloging–like “health” for a dress that had been padded in the back, possibly for someone who had scoliosis.
    I look forward to following your progress! Don’t hesitate to call if there’s anything I can do to help.
    All best,

  4. Laura Crow says:

    We are in the process of building a digital museum of our costumes. Would be interested to share. We were planning to do the same thing.
    Nancy Rexford is familiar with our collection.

    • Kiki Smith says:

      Hi Laura!
      I’m delighted though not surprised that you searched and found this site. It’s definitely in its infancy, but before too long, we hope to have funding/grants to expand the software and reach out to other scholars and collections.
      Right now, we’re using a teeny bit of Nancy’s research for a pilot project as part of a grant on the digital humanities. The quilters already have their big site, as do the architectural historians (SAHARA), so it’s time dress does, too.
      I do hope this site can incorporate your collection (I hear about it from Edward all the time) plus research materials and essays.
      Keep in touch.

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