- My NYPL
Tools and Services
- Using the Library
I am a...
- Classes & Events
- Support the Library
Costume and Fashion History: A Guide to Resources
The literature of costume and fashion history is diverse in nature. The first printed books on the subject appeared in the sixteenth century. Illustrated surveys of historic costume blossomed in the late eighteenth century and reached a peak by the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Scholarly developments in the 1920s and 1930s produced studies in which fashion and dress received new psychological and sociological evaluation. More extensive scholarly and popular publications on historical dress began to appear by the 1970s, including exhibition catalogues from museum permanent collections and temporary exhibitions.
While costume history extends from antiquity to the modern era, the bulk of publications on fashion history cover the period from the mid-to-late nineteenth century to the present, with emphasis on individual designers and their work. Many publications link fashion history with the development of haute couture. Costume history studies generally consider fashion synonymous with stylistic change.
Modern publications usually define the term “costume” as a mode of dress specific to a time period, nation, or social class. The terms “fashion” and “style” are often used interchangeably to indicate a predominant form of dress during a given time.
Costume publications can be found throughout the Humanities and Social Sciences Library, from Special Collections to the General Research Division. The majority of works on costume and fashion history, however, are located in the Wallach Division’s Art & Architecture Collection, and served through its reading room (Room 300).
If you need further assistance, visit our reference desk, or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Compiled by Paula A. Baxter, March 2007
Using the Library’s Catalog
For general instruction on using the Library’s catalog, please consult “How Do I Find a Book.” The following information is specific to the subjects of costume and fashion history.
Subject headings in our online catalog, CATNYP, derive from Library of Congress Subject Headings, available at the reference desk in Room 300. The following categories of subject headings will provide a working guide to what kinds of headings should be used.
The most commonly used terms are:
Clothing and dress
Note: since Costume is an older term in use, more entries for historical titles will appear under this heading than for Clothing and dress. A comprehensive search should make use of both main headings.
These headings can be subdivided by time period (century) and geographical location.
Clothing and Dress—United States
Narrower terms exist, including the following selected headings:
Clothing and dress measurements
Color in clothing
Nationalism and clothing
Searching by subject will usually generate the most accurate and beneficial results. However, if you are not certain of the correct subject heading to use, you may have better luck with a keyword search on CATNYP, particularly if you are looking for a specific dress mode or historical term. For individual artists or designers, you should search by both author and subject.
Selected Key Historical Titles
Books with plates of costume first appeared in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A “golden age” of illustrated plate books then developed by the mid-to-late eighteenth century and extended into the early nineteenth century. These publications were intended for wealthy clients and featured a variety of historical dress depictions, unlike earlier efforts that concentrated on contemporary garb. More works began to appear regularly through the nineteenth century, many geared toward theater costume needs. Historical visual surveys, often with large-size plates, grew in popularity during the Victorian era. The following titles are a sample (without annotations) of the Library’s large collection of landmark historical costume studies, including innovative works on national and ceremonial dress.
A Collection of the dresses of different nations, antient and modern. London: Thomas Jefferys, 1757-72. 4 vol. (MMC+)
Duplessis, Georges. Costumes historiques des XVIe, XVIIe, et XVIIIe siècles. Paris: Levy, 1867. (MMC+)
Jacquemin, Raphael. Iconographie générale et methodique du costume du 4e au 19e siècle. Paris: s.n., 1869. (MMC++)
Lipperheide, F.J. von. Kostümsammlung Lipperheide. Leipzig: s.n., 1884. (MMB)
Meyrick, Samuel Rush. A Critical inquiry into antient armour… London: H.G. Bohn, 1842. (MMC+)
Racinet, Auguste. Le Costume historique. Paris: Firmin-Didot et Cie, 1888. (3-MMC+)
Schneider, Louis. Gallerie der costüme… Berlin: Winkelmann, 1844-48. (MMC)
Strutt, Joseph. A Complete view of the dress and habits of the people of England… London: H.G. Bohn, 1842. (MMK+)
Tiron, René. Histoire et costumes des orders religieux, civils et militaries. Brussels: Librairie Historique-Artistique, 1845. (MMED)
Reference Resources by Topic
Since scholarly literature on costume and fashion history is a fairly recent academic achievement, fewer reference publications have been developed than might be expected. A majority of these works are devoted to the business and advertising side of the clothing industry. Endeavors based on historical evaluation are growing, however, and more relevant tools should appear in the coming years. The most useful tools at present cover terminology and identification of subject-specific theories, trends, and historical individuals.
Calasibetta, Charlotte Mankey. Fairchild’s dictionary of fashion. New York: Fairchild Pub., 1988 edition in Art ( MME 89-5314), and 1998 edition at SIBL (JSE 03-977)
This book provides alphabetical listing of terms used in costume, fashion history, and clothing production. Multiple definitions are given when they exist, including brands, products, and informal or slang terms, along with pronunciations for some entries.
Callan, Georgina O’Hara. The Thames and Hudson dictionary of fashion and fashion designers. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1998. (MME 00-4911)
Covers the period from 1840, when the introduction of the sewing machine laid the ground for the forthcoming ready-to-wear industry, until the end of the 1990s. Focuses on major fashion capitals of this time, from Paris to Milan, and dress terms connected with haute couture. Biographies included on designers, illustrators, artists and style icon figures, such as English model Twiggy.
Davies, Stephanie. Costume language: a dictionary of dress terms. Malvern: Cressrelles, 1994. (MMC 96-2857)
This is an academically oriented guide that gives concise definitions and origins for costume and fashion history terms. Particularly good at explaining terms derived from foreign words, e.g. houpplelande, redingote.
Encyclopedia of clothing and fashion. Edited by Valerie Steele. Farmington Hills, MI: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005. 3 vol. (*R-Art 05-5568)
An important tool because of its accessibility, the dictionary style alphabetical entries cover dress types, modes, materials, specialized garments, social theory and factors, historical topics, geographical dress, and significant individuals. The scope is global, ranging from “academic dress” to “zoot suits.” The social theory entries provide up-to-date scholarly insights, and the bibliography attached to entries lead readers to the most important publications on that topic.
Historical Surveys and Fashion Theory (20th Century)
The development of a scholarly literature on costume history and fashion theory is largely a product of research that began in earnest in the mid-to-late 1960s. Historical surveys provide far-ranging descriptions and illustrations that permit readers to view dress changes over an extended period of time. The first important fashion theory publications, however, treated clothing as a key symptom of social change.
Batterberry, Michael. Mirror, mirror: a social history of fashion. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1977. (MMC+ 78-849)
This study’s useful and rather spirited methodology gives the reader a well-drawn frame of reference for clothing’s evolution from antiquity to the modern era.
Boucher, François. 20,000 years of fashion: the history of costume and personal
adornment. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1967. (MMC)
A standard illustrated, textbook-like treatment of clothing that gives readers a running visual and descriptive timeline of stylistic change.
Byrde, Penelope. Nineteenth century fashion. London: Batsford, 1992. (MMK 92-15879)
An important, self-contained look at the production of clothing for that century. Styles and modes are related to historical developments in technology and lifestyle.
Clancy, Deirdre. Costume since 1945: couture, street style, and anti-fashion. New York: Drama Publishers, 1996. (MME 97-279)
This book attempts to capture the more informal, popular culture influences that have affected modern dress since World War II. Shows the impact of media and technology as well.
De Marly, Diana. The history of haute couture 1850-1950. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1980. (MMC 81-874)
A definitive examination of haute couture’s origins and impetus, including evaluation of the great couturiers Worth and Poiret. Covers the development of couture houses and their context within marketplace and consumer demand.
Laver, James. Costume and fashion: a concise history. 4th ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2002. (MMC 95-13801)
Laver was one of the most important early costume historians, relating dress and social history in both meaningful and entertaining ways.
Steele, Valerie. Paris fashion: a cultural history. Oxford; New York: Berg, 1998. (3-MME 99-9956)
This work links the historical and social factors that made Paris such an important center for fashion.
Steele, Valerie. Women of fashion: twentieth-century designers. New York: Rizzoli, 1991. (MME+ 92-6954)
Treats the women who helped define the term “fashion designer,” while showing the feminine side of an industry most often dominated by men.
Yarwood, Doreen. Costume of the Western world: pictorial guide and glossary. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980. (MMC 86-83)
A well-rounded visual survey of western dress with quick-at-a-glance drawings. Historical dress terms are the main focus with century summaries that start in 1000 (the early Middle Ages) and run up to 1980.
Men led fashion from antiquity to our modern era, before ceding authority to the growing haute couture emphasis on feminine dress. As the literature of costume and fashion history grew through the twentieth century, studies of men’s wear remained considerably less numerous than those for women. Attempts at redressing this imbalance have begun over the last three decades, aided by the advent of gender studies. Many of these newer publications examine the traditional masculine diffidence about fashion, and some titles, in particular, look at the relationship between men’s clothing and popular culture.
Bennett-England, Rodney. Dress optional: the revolution in menswear. London: Owen, 1967. (3-MME)
Anchors social history, popular culture and mass media awareness of men’s clothing, and how casual dress, including sportswear, make up modern clothing choices.
Chenoune, Farid. Des Modes et des hommes: deux siècles d’élégance masculine. Paris: Flammarion, 1993. (JFF 96-3454)
A fairly thorough survey of masculine dress with emphasis on upper class dress modes.
Flusser, Alan. Clothes and the man: the principles of fine men’s dress. New York: Villard Books, 1992. (JQF 04-260)
A primer for what constitutes contemporary fine male dress. Discusses garment types and how they should be worn, traditional uses of accessories, and principles of masculine clothing that are based on historical precedent.
Laver, James. Dress. London: John Murray, 1966. (MMC+)
One of costume historian Laver’s most far-flung approaches to the history of men’s dress is offered in concise, anecdotal form.
McDowell, Colin. The Man of fashion. London: Thames and Hudson, 1997. (3-MME+ 97-13412)
A historical examination of masculine attempts to lead fashion, with particular focus on dandyism and sartorial elegance as social goals.
Polhemus, Ted. Streetstyle: from sidewalk to catwalk. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1994. (3-MMC 95-9354)
Covers the development of a modern era casual menswear industry, along with anti-fashion trends. Follows influences from both the streets and haute couture houses.
Waugh, Nora. The Cut of men’s clothes 1600-1900. London: Faber & Faber, 1964. (MMC 84-684)
A classic study of exactly how men’s clothes were cut and shaped, right up to the dominance of the ready-to-wear clothing industry.
Zakim, Michael. Ready-made democracy: a history of men’s dress in the American Republic, 1760-1860. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. (JQE 04-141)
Evaluates the historical conditions and events that led to changes in American masculine clothing, and how the New World provided leadership in mass tailoring techniques, and the introduction of a ready-to-wear industry.
Women’s Clothing and Fashion
The majority of publications on costume history relate to feminine dress. This reality reflects the social perception that the fashion business is all about women’s clothing, although recent scholarship is seeking to redress this imbalance. While men largely control the fashion industry, women-centric books and magazines continue to flood the marketplace. In fact, women’s garments only really achieved new direction in the twentieth century, when they were able to adopt masculine trousers and suits.
Carter, Ernestine. The changing world of fashion: 1900 to the present. New York: Putnam, 1977. (MMC 79-2599)
Reviews the 20th century’s major feminine clothing transitions, from hemlines to silhouettes.
Dorner, Jane. Fashion: the changing shape of fashion through the years. London: Octopus Books, 1974. (MMC 77-83)
A textbook-like visual and descriptive survey of changes (however minute) in women’s dress.
Ewing, Elizabeth. Dress and undress: a history of women’s underwear. London: Batsford, 1978. (MMV 86-53)
Examines how changes in undergarments demonstrate a “liberation” of the female body from passive to active mode.
Moore, Doris Langley-Levy. The woman in fashion. London; New York: Batsford, 1949. (MME)
A classic study of how women came to appropriate fashion leadership.
Steele, Valerie. The corset: a cultural history. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001. (JFF 02-476)
This book traces the development of and use of this all-important foundation undergarment.
Steele, Valerie. Fashion and eroticism: ideals of feminine beauty from the Victorian era to the Jazz Age. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. (3-MME 85-1642)
Looks at the social and psychological factors behind women’s dress as it changed during the early modern era.
Warren, Geoffrey. Fashion accessories since 1500. London: Unwin Hyman; New York: Drama Book Pub., 1987. (MMV 88-3041)
A century-by-century examination of adornment, including headgear, gloves, shoes, handbags, and related decorative elements.
Waugh, Nora. Corsets and crinolines. London: Batsford, 1954. (MMV+)
An early, but still influential, review of women’s clothes for a historical period.
Waugh, Norah. The cut of women’s clothes 1600-1930. London: Faber, 1968. (MMC)
Provides a chronological summary of how feminine garments were shaped and tailored.
Fashion and Gender Studies
The new academic preoccupation with gender, ethnicity, and social interaction is of fairly recent date. Multi-disciplinary and interdisciplinary studies offer evaluations of dress in new contexts. While social history has always been the underlying methodology of costume surveys, gender-based investigation permits broader considerations of the impact of dress on behavior and the marketplace. The examples below are critical texts consulted for the Library’s exhibition on “A Rakish History of Men’s Wear.” A large number of these publications may be found in the JF class (General Research Division).
Breward, Christopher. The Hidden consumer: masculinities, fashion and city life 1860-1914. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999. (JFE 00-3195)
An important academic study of how consumerism affected the development of male dress.
Byrde, Penelope. The Male image: men’s fashion in Britain 1300-1970. London: B.T. Batsford, 1979. (3-MMK 88-5451)
Insightful national costume study that offers concise access to key clothing transitions.
Crane, Diana. Fashion and its social agendas: class, gender, and identity in clothing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. (3-MME 00-12554)
Academic essays that place clothing and social aspects in context. Covers popular culture trends and the role of marketing to create group identity in dress.
Dandies: fashion and finesse in art and culture. Edited by Susan Fillin-Yeh. New York: New York University Press, 2001. (3-MME 01-6383)
An anthology of essays related to the rise of the dandy and social perceptions about his (and her) role.
Harvey, John. Men in black. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. (JFE 94-10137)
A social history of the various historical uses of black clothing, leading up to the adoption of black as a standard color for modern era men’s wear.
Hollander, Anne. Sex and suits. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994. (JFE 94-14291)
Treats the diverse elements behind the evolution of the masculine suit: including form and sexuality, relevant aspects of modernity, and the role of the fashion industry.
Men and women: dressing the part. Edited by Claudia Kidwell and Valerie Steele. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989. (3-MMP 89-19256)
Delineates issues specific to the two sexes and their social context.
Locating Journal Articles
Guides to articles written on costume and fashion history can be found in the following relevant online indexes, found on the Library’s Selected Electronic Resources file under the term “Art & Architecture:”
Art Index Retrospective
Art Full Text
Bibliography of the History of Art (BHA)
*Design and Applied Art Index
If a journal is located in one of these indexes, the next step requires searching the journal’s title in CATNYP to see if the Library owns this periodical, and to obtain the classmark for requesting the item.
* represents indices that may feature a higher proportion of articles related to clothing history
The Library’s website www.nypl.org provides access to the Digital Gallery, where thousands of costume related imagery can be found. Two sections in particular, “Customs and Costume: Surveys and Examples of National Studies to 1900” and “Dress and Fashion: Design and Manufacture” show historical costume plates. Also to be found in the Digital Gallery is the online resource of the Picture Collection, with over 30,000 images from the collection. The Picture Collection, with over a million physical images on file in folders, is located at the Mid-Manhattan Library on 5th Avenue and 40th Street. A limited amount of historical costume images can be found by searching the scholarly image database ARTstor, which compiles artworks and illustrations from museum and other cultural collections.
Selected Internet Sites
Internet resources on costume and fashion history can be problematic. Quality control remains a serious issue for sites that are built to feature costume history, and the actual number of such sites is limited. A majority of these sites have a commercial basis or creator. Therefore, the areas of contemporary fashion business, advertising, and haute couture are better represented online. Major designers often have their own sites.
Useful, representative sites:
- The Costume Gallery
- The Costume Page: Costuming Resources Online
- The Costume Society (U.K.)
- Costume Society of America
- The Costumer’s Manifesto
- Museum of Costume, Bath (U.K.)
- Prêt à Porter Paris
Picture of the Day
Production still, including Fred Willard, Carole Shelley, Paul Benedict, Elizabeth Wilson and Vincent Gardenia (1968). NYPL Billy Rose Theatre Collection.
One of 700,000 pictures in the NYPL Digital Gallery