Open-access resource lets students, scholars, and fans explore centuries of fashion through objects and art
by Raquel Laneri
As recently as five years ago, if you came across an unfamiliar term for a garment, a vintage blouse you couldn’t date, or a painting featuring a sartorial detail you couldn’t place, you had to go to a specialized library. Which meant for the average enthusiast—or a student working on a paper late at night—such information was frustratingly out of reach.
That’s why Justine De Young, assistant professor of History of Art, started the Fashion History Timeline. It’s an open-access database for fashion knowledge in which students, scholars, journalists, and the curious can read essays about garments, artworks, and related ephemera from more than 100 museums, libraries, and other institutions.
De Young created the Fashion History Timeline as a pilot program with her undergraduate history students in 2015. It launched to the public in February 2018, after a redesign funded by a grant from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation. The website now has more than 300 entries, many written by current and former students from 42 majors, who contribute to it as part of their coursework. Scholars from around the world also write pieces. About 5,400 people visit the site each day.
The site includes an illustrated fashion history dictionary with a growing list of term definitions, as well as essays on film, portraiture, and garments dating from antiquity (such as a beaded dress from ancient Egypt) to the present day (a frock from Alexander McQueen’s 2010 Plato’s Atlantis collection).
“I’d been frustrated for a while about how few credible resources there were for fashion history online, I thought, ‘It doesn’t have to be this way.'”
Justine De Young
And it’s growing. The Kress Foundation and SUNY have provided additional funds to add decade overviews from the 15th to 20th centuries, which will be completed by the end of 2020. A new book, Digital Research Methods in Fashion and Textile Studies by Amanda Sikarskie (Bloomsbury 2020), discussed the Fashion History Timeline in the same context as Google Arts and Culture and the Berg Fashion Library, two major online resources.
De Young sees the timeline as an ever-evolving, expanding universe—a Wikipedia for fashion. She says she only could have started it at FIT.
“FIT was uniquely positioned to harness [this] research and to present it to the world,” she says. “We were the perfect people to step into this void and help fill it.”
We summarized five topics that capture the scope of this excellent resource.
One of the best ways to study fashion is through portraiture, as evidenced by Madame X, John Singer Sargent’s famed painting of American socialite Virginie Gautreau, which caused a scandal when it was exhibited in Paris in 1884. “It’s super iconic,” De Young says when asked why she chose to write about the painting for the timeline. “But I also think there are misconceptions about [the subject], and so I wanted to try to address some of those.”
For example, De Young says, many people think the dress was shocking for the time. But an analysis of fashions of the period show that Gautreau’s “plunging décolletage” and thin straps were actually typical for the era.
“The fact that one of the straps was falling down was much more shocking than the amount of skin on display,” she says. (Sargent later repainted the strap.) Also scandalous: “how artificially powdered she is and her sort-of haughtiness.”
De Young hopes the timeline will rectify more of these misconceptions. “I always like it when we look into the past and discover that our assumptions were wrong or that the way [contemporary audiences] saw the picture was different from the way we see it now.”
It might seem surprising that the Fashion History Timeline includes movies, since Hollywood routinely takes liberties with historical dress. But De Young says that looking at film costumes is instructive.
Take Cleopatra, the 1963 historical epic starring Elizabeth Taylor as the eponymous queen of Egypt. The Fashion History Timeline essay on the movie includes a rundown of ancient Egyptian garments, what Cleopatra would have likely worn (probably Greek costume, given her family’s background), an analysis of Taylor’s key ensembles—including her hairdos and makeup—and how costume designer Irene Sharaff interpreted (or, sometimes, completely ignored) history to make a glamorous, Golden Era Hollywood–worthy suite of clothes (by eschewing wrinkly linen or white for more manageable fabrics in more eye-popping, film-friendly hues).
“Film is a fascinating insight into how the past is perceived and how costume designers grapple with being authentic versus responding to the tastes of the day,” De Young says.
Denim Leisure Suit
Many of the garments featured in the Fashion History Timeline come from The Museum at FIT’s extensive collection, such as this 1973 denim leisure suit by Bill Kaiserman, who designed under the name Rafael.
This entry includes not only the evolution of the “leisure suit” and a short biography of Kaiserman, but also a diagram of the ensemble, pointing out each of the suit’s individual components.
“I make all of my students [do diagrams]—both in the garment analyses and artwork analyses,” De Young says. “It’s always been one of my frustrations when I read articles that use some weird terminology and you’re not quite sure what part of the outfit that is.”
The Fashion History Timeline also includes contemporary garments, such as this Alexander McQueen dress from the late designer’s 2010 collection Plato’s Atlantis.
While many of the older objects in the timeline were included to show what people actually wore in a certain time and milieu, this McQueen frock is defiantly avant-garde, with its sculptural shape and super-short hemline that transform its wearer into some kind of reptilian space creature.
Yet it’s still historically significant. Plato’s Atlantis was one of the most influential collections of the previous decade. It was the last runway show McQueen—a masterful tailor and dressmaker who also elevated fashion into the realm of art—produced before his death in 2010. It also employed then-novel, far-out technologies such as 3D printing and livestreaming.
One entry investigates the color red in fashion. The essay includes everything from how red dye has been produced throughout the ages to its rising status as a symbol of wealth and power in the Middle Ages and Renaissance to its modern connotations of boldness and elegance, as evidenced in the fashions of Valentino.