While I was researching my MA dissertation, I took a research trip to Paris to visit the Bibliothèque Forney, an art and design library with an extraordinary collection of French fashion periodicals. I took hundreds of photographs and pages of notes, but by the end of my trip, I was wishing I had a few more days (or weeks) to spend in that Gothic chateau-turned library. So it was with great delight that I discovered the national library of France’s (Bibliothèque Nationale de France BNF) online service Gallica. The database comprises millions of digitized French documents held by the library, many of which are high resolution images that are also full text searchable. Although not the same collections as those I flipped through on my trip, Gallica did have many digital resources that I was able to use to supplement the material I had found in person to strengthen the arguments in my dissertation.
Collections of note to fashion historians include periodicals such as French Vogue from 1920-1941 (although not a complete set), Fémina from 1910-1914 and 1926-1938, Les Modes from 1901-1937 and Les Élégances Parisiennes from 1916-1917, just to name a few.
Les Modes, February 1925; Les Élégances Parisiennes, April 1916.
Beyond these periodicals, there are many opportunities to find less obvious primary sources for fashion research, from newspapers like Le Figaro, Le Matin and Le Journal, to trade journals, photographs, and even sound recordings. Resources compiled under various themes can also be found on the home page for general browsing and inspiration – I, for example, was particularly intrigued by this page on materials related to French health spa destinations like Brides-Les-Bains and Evian.
Viewing Les Modes, February 1925 in the ‘gallery’ display.
The Gallica website is incredibly easy to use and allows for simple keyword searches that often yield thousands of hits, or more advanced searches that can be refined by date, type, language and source collection. Once a document is selected, the website allows for individual page viewing, an overall gallery display for scanning through a periodical quickly, and zooming in to read small text or view detail on an image. Once you find a page or image that you would like to save, you are able to download a JPEG or PDF file of the entire document or selected pages.
The National Library of France’s digitization efforts make Gallica a very valuable resource to fashion historians, particularly those interested in French fashion history as it relates to the social and cultural history of France as whole. Every time I conduct a search on Gallica I seem to get more and more results, indicating that new records continue to be digitized and added to the database, providing new primary source material for many research projects to come.
Image Credits: All author’s screenshots, from gallica.bnf.fr.