The internet is full of historical and contemporary costume resources, but they are not all created equally. There is no intention that this list be extensive, perfect or otherwise complete, but it is a listing of sites I use regularly when doing research for paper dolls. I have only listed museum and library sites at the moment, though there are some good personal sites out there which I will add when I have time.
Don’t underestimate the value of a museum website. Most require a little digging to find the “collections” search, but once you do there may be a treasure trove of images of actual historical garments. Don’t expect a lot of historical information, most museum websites just offer the objects without a lot of context. Still, context is dime a dozen, full color photographs of unique costumes are harder to find and many museum websites have special sections devoted to educational information where all sorts of interesting things can be uncovered.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
With a strong historical costume collection, primarily western, LACMA is a great source for beautiful images of clothing. They have a slightly off search interface, but once you get used to it the results are strong and you can limit by type easily enough. They recently published the wonderful book Fashioning Fashion which I can not recommend enough.
The Kyoto Fashion Institute
With a website in English and in Japanese, The Kyoto Fashion Institute digital archives features photos of western dress from 1750 until the 1990’s. The institute has also published a few books which are well worth picking up with you can find them- most are out of print and expensive on the secondary market.
National Museums Scotland
This online collections database claims to contain over 3 million objects and I don’t really doubt it. I recommend searching with the keyword “dress” or “costume”.
Victoria and Albert Museum
I couldn’t create a listing like this and not include the V&A, because it contains an extensive collection of historical costume and fashion. Search the collections or just browse around the historical fashion sets. They also have an extensive collection of world dress along with western and jewelry, though not everything has a photograph.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s fashion collection is housed in the Costume Institute which sadly has never been open anytime I’ve gone to visit. However, the collection highlights are available online such as the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History which includes costume and, of course, other things.
The Fashion Museum
Located in Bath, England, the Fashion Museum has an extensive collection of historical costume items including detailed holdings on the early-18th century including the regency and empire periods as well as an extensive collection of 1960’s mod wear and quite a bit in-between, like some fantastic 1920’s dresses.
Digital Library Collections
Perhaps as a librarian, I’m biased, but many libraries have begun to digitize their holdings and in the process have produced some wonderful collections of fashion plates. Due to copyright constraints, most of these collections end at 1923.
The New York Public Library Digital Gallery
One of the largest collections of digital material online, The New York Public Library Digital Gallery is massive with large collections of material. The size is both a blessing and a curse. You can browse the Arts and Literature collections or use the advanced search. I recommend finding an image which you like and then copying the subject terms attached to it by the library. I often use a year, a term like “dress” and a gender such as woman to find things to search from.
Casey Fashion Plate Index
The Los Angeles Public Library contains over 5,000 fashion plates from between 1790 (though very few are pre-1800) through the year 1880. Most come from British or American fashion magazines. While the collection is extensive, there is almost no commentary about the images except a year (usually hand written on the image) and a magazine, if known. The result is a fantastic collection of images, but no context. You might not know what you are looking at exactly (day dress, walking dress, afternoon costume…), but it will be beautiful.
Fashion Plate Collection of the University of Washington’s Libraries
Housed at the University of Washington’s Libraries, this collection features 417 images from 1806 through 1915. The 118 Edwardian images are an excellent representation of a rarely exhibited period. The collection can also be searched by keywords and other terms. I like to browse it since it’s not terribly huge collection of images.
Fashion Plate Collection of the Claremont Libraries Digital Collections
The collection ranges from 1789 and 1914. It can be browsed by decade or searched more traditionally. Though there are some 18th century pieces, the collections strengths seem to be in the 1840’s, 1820’s, and 1830’s. Like many other digital library collections, these images come from major fashion journals of their era, but may not have all their contextual information attached. Many people collect the plates, but not the information attached to the plates.