Twelve Museums with Searchable Online Costume Collections

This post could be subtitled: How to waste time looking at pretty dresses…

I used to have a Research Resources page, but it never got updates and I know from my stats was basically ignored, but I think tracking down this sort of stuff on the internet is fun (I am a librarian, what do you expect?), so here are a few museums which have strong costume collections that you can view online and that I use when I’m looking for research sources.

Two things people should know:

    1. The number of costume pieces which predate 1700 is limited, but not non-existent. I have tried to note when a museum has pre-18th century holdings.

    2. These are in the order which I bookmarked them and doesn’t resemble any actual ranking of quality.

Okay, here we go….

Contains something like 50,000 costumes and textile artifacts from the mid-18th century to the present, the Chicago History Museum Costume Collection is one of the largest in the world. Not everything is available on line yet, but those which are have beautiful quality photos and some include CT scans showing the interior construction of the garments (which is totally useless for paper dolling, but totally cool never the less.)

Browse a selection of objects from the Fashion Museum collection, or search the selection for a specific term using the search box or menus. The photo’s aren’t the best, but the Fashion Museum has some stuff that is hard to find elsewhere, including an excellent collection of regency dresses.

Searchable database which is wonderful, but the collection can also be browsed by costume themes such as clothes for work or sports and includes some unusual pieces like early archery dresses and information.

Okay, so I didn’t know that Indianapolis had such a stellar costume collection until a few months ago, but they really do have a stellar collection. The color photos are lovely, but there is some variation in quality. Like a lot of collections in the United States, the strength of the material comes from the 19th century.

Be sure to search the “online catalog” as well as check out the Costume Gallery. The Gallery contains only a few of the costume pieces owned by the Kent State Museum, the rest are in the catalog and the catalog contains several hundred thousand pieces, though not all are costume related. I don’t know why Kent State has such a strong collection, but they do and they are all lovely- especially their 18th century pieces.

The KCI Digital archives is a wonderful source organized by date, but not a large one. If you can find a copy, their book Fashion is incredible.

Searchable by date, type or region, the collection is massive. Unlike a lot of other collections, LACMA has a fair number of things that are pre-18th century.

The Met’s database covers the entire collection, including their costume materials. Recently, the Brooklyn City Museum gave the Met their costume collections and so there are some really outstanding pieces from that collection available. Like LACMA, the Met is large enough to have pieces that predate the 18th century.

Mostly 20th century, and mostly high fashion, the FIT’s collection is small enough to browse, but large enough to be diverse. I hope they add more to it in the coming years, because I’m sure this only scratches the surface of what the school actually owns.

Search the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to find beautifully photographed costume pieces from around the world. Their Chinese material is particularly strong, though their photos are a little small.

There is so much at the V&A that it is a little overwhelming. Not every photograph is useful, but the huge amount of material is well worth it. V&A has some of the best pre-18th century materials available.

The MFA owns pieces ranging from Middle Eastern rugs to African kente cloths to haute couture fashions to American stays. Their collection is sprawling to say the least, but incredibly useful.

This isn’t isn’t complete. I know there is material out there from other museums, but I wanted to showcase a few that I find particularly useful. Did I miss anyone’s favorites? Are there some I should know about? Do people find these sorts of things useful?

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