Lost Fabric: Archiving the History of Fashion

Murphy: a previous art project of mine which entailed refurbishing and Anglicizing a vintage dress dummy.

Murphy: a previous art project of mine which entailed refurbishing and Anglicizing a vintage dress dummy.

Textiles are one of those well, fabrics, which archaeologists uncover sparingly.

Elite dresses of the past few centuries are occasionally encountered in attics, and these are easy enough to display in museums for comparison and contrast. And these form the basic premise of the history of fashion most museum-goers might encounter.

But add in the bits and pieces of ancient fabric, the drawings, carvings, and other second hand sources for modern notions of historic fashion–and it becomes an unwieldy archive to handle in the physical realm. One whose elements are mostly locked away, rarely every together, and rely far more on the fabulous skills and memories of its practitioners than on quantitative comparison. And while it might seem a bit of a giddy topic, fashion is one of the most important socio-cultural and economic indicators in contemporary and past society. A lot can be learned about humanity from the history of fashion. Never underestimate things that are iconic.

And as cultural heritage studies move digital, so too can the archive capabilities and understandings of historic fashion begin to expand. Pottery, text, and painting can be correlated with textiles and local flora (which may have produced delicate textiles we have no record of whatsoever). And for the recent past, paintings, formal and home photography, editions of Vogue, all of these things can potentially be cross-referenced, annotated, and archived properly and usefully.

Note my use of ‘potentially’ in there. Because one of the big problems in digital heritage is the lack of communication between the people who need these systems- the museum curators, fashion designers with a historic flair, and teenagers intent on setting their own high school trends…(okay maybe we’ll just focus on the museum curators here) —and the people who design those systems-like the software engineers who build it and diagnostic imaging technicians who capture the data that goes in it.

That’s one of the things that has been so great about the collaboration between Vid and I. As an archaeologist and a computer scientist both working together on the same topic, we’re able to approach all of the various issues from our different perspectives and meet in the middle to build effective systems that solve the cultural heritage problem we were handling (and oh the Problems with Point Clouds we’ve faced).

To explore both the fragility of certain archaeological artifacts and lack there of, as well as this notion of archive users working with archive-makers to construct systems, we’d like to include a piece dedicated to the History of Fashion in our Cabinet of Curiosities.

A dress made out of dresses, this mixed media sculpture will pull images and fabric samples from the current open access archives which feature fashion elements. Combining traditional printing, fabric printing, and 3D printing, the resulting piece is intended to be a testament to the future of online archives and cross-collaboration.

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