Fashion in the Museum: Collection Access

Seeing a dress in a photo is a very different experience than examining the details of cut, construction and embellishment or searching for evidence of how the garment was worn, used or altered over time. However, it can be difficult to gain access to collections of costume and textiles for design inspiration and material culture research, and this knowledge has been the impetus behind my quest to make the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection an open and accessible resource in Toronto.

Black silk and lace gown c.1910 Made in Paris
Ryerson Fashion Research Collection, Photo by Ingrid Mida 2013

Other facilities that allow visiting researchers on-site include: FIT Museum in New York City, The Fashion Resource Centre at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Kent State Museum in Ohio, FIDM Museum in Los Angeles (the subject of my next post), The GoldsteinMuseum of Design  in Minnesota and Fashion Museum in Bath, England.

Fashion Resource Centre at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Photo by Ingrid Mida 2012

Textiles are inherently fragile and each time they are handled, there is the possibility of damage. Many of the rare 19th century pieces in the Ryerson Collection are so delicate that they must be protected from excessive handling. In order to balance open access with preservation, I applied for and received a grant to photograph selected key pieces in the collection and upload them to an online database. Not only will this project help preserve these rare historic pieces, but it will also allow students, faculty and researchers to see representative pieces from the entire collection. (This project will be the subject of a future post).

1895 Pink silk bodice with lace trim
Ryerson Fashion Research Collection
Photo by Ingrid Mida 2013

In designing this project, I looked at what other costume collections offer online, including:

Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Collection: The Met has over 35000 costumes and accessories in their collection, with the earliest piece going back to the 15th century. This New York museum sets the gold standard for online digitized collections, providing multiple images and extensive descriptive information and provenance details for each item.

Victoria and Albert Museum Collections: Although the storage and research facilities for this London based museum collection are currently being renovated (scheduled to reopen in October 2013), the V&A website gives access to images from their extensive costume collection and also provides videos, articles, suggested books, and related material. An inviting and friendly website, the fashion related section is organized by period, with links to all related material available on the site. Like the Met, the information provided for each fashion item is extensive, including multiple viewpoints, photos of related accessories, marks and inscriptions and exhibition history.

FIT Museum Collection: FIT Museum currently has over 50000 garments and accessories in its collection. Although they have pieces going back to the 18th century, their focus is on contemporary fashion and they seek to add new pieces that “make fashion history”. They have an extensive online collection and are adding to that regularly. FIT has a smaller study collection of approximately 1200 pieces that is accessible to students, faculty and visiting researchers.

Kent State University Museum: Kent State has one of the largest study collections in the world with over 40,000 pieces including historic pieces from the 18th and 19th centuries to the present. While only a small sampling of items has been digitized, this museum believes in accessibility and welcomes students, faculty and visiting researchers.

Drexel University Historic Costume Collection: An online collection featuring detail close-ups and 360-degree views of 129 selected pieces from the collection. Of particular note are the photos related to the conservation of an 1885 gown by Charles Frederick Worth.

Chicago History Museum Costume & Textiles Collection: This museum’s costume collection includes over 50000 costumes and textile artifacts from the mid-18th century to the present, and is one of the largest in the world. The digital collection features multiple views of nearly 400 costume and textile artifacts.

These online collections offer portals into some of the finest examples of historic costume and textiles. On May 2, 2013, Europeana Fashion will launch an online public archive of fashion artefacts from 22 European Institutions. Freelance curator Alessandra Arezzi Boza, who is responsible for the site’s content and communications,  was quoted in Vogue UK: ”This is the first attempt to assemble such an important collection of fashion content from both private and public archives and museums. And it is surely one of the great challenges of the project as, until now, fashion content was scattered online and not easily searchable.”

Even though the small window that I will create for Ryerson will never rival that of these big institutions,  I hope it will encourage students, faculty and visiting researchers to use the collection as a resource tool for construction methods, fashion history, design inspiration and material culture research.

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