How to Research Historical Fashion

Hi everyone! I know it’s been forever since I last wrote on this blog. Between college and my personal projects, I’ve had no time for blogging. But college is finally starting to wrap up for me, the entire world is shut down from the coronavirus, and I have no job due to the economy being bad. And now I just got inspired to write a post for those of you who are interested in learning more about fashion history, but don’t know where to start!

(Disclaimer: I’m not a professional fashion historian. I’m a finance major who loves fashion history and has been studying it on my own time for many years.)

I’ll be the first to admit that when I first became interested in fashion history, I did not do very good research at first. The reason I even got into fashion history in the first place was because I was writing a medieval fantasy novel as a young teenager. What I enjoyed probably even more than the writing part was drawing the characters’ outfits. At first, I didn’t care at all about the historical accuracy of the dresses. I just drew things that I thought were pretty and looked vaguely historical. Then one day I became curious about what medieval fashion actually looked like, so what did I do? I searched the Internet for “medieval dresses” and trusted that whatever came up in the Images tab was accurate to medieval times.

Spoiler alert: this is not a good way to research the history of fashion.

Just now, I tried searching Google for “medieval dresses” just to see what would come up and it looked like this:


What you get here in this search is not all bad, but it is mostly bad. There’s a lot of cheap costumes made out of inaccurate materials like polyester and spandex. There are some dresses with full, ballgown-ish skirts that ooze with chiffon. (Now, they did have some sheer, gauzy materials in the Middle Ages, but they were used pretty differently than that and don’t appear to be the same as chiffon we have today.) That one dress on the far right in the middle row uses net and lace in a pretty inaccurate way. You get the idea. The only dress that looks okay-ish to me is the one on the far left in the middle row, the blue one with a brown belt.

In reality, medieval fashion looked more like this.


And that’s not a complete sampling of all the different styles in medieval fashion, of course. For example I don’t see any Burgundian or Houppelande dresses anywhere on this screenshot. But you can see how striking the difference is between the Google screenshot and the screenshot from my medieval research board on Pinterest.

(In case any of you are curious, I’m still working on my fantasy novel. It’s still not finished because I changed the plot like 5 times. And what I ended up doing is not copying medieval European fashions exactly, but kind of making up my own fashion culture based loosely on the patterns and rules I’ve observed from fashion history in general. Knowing the “rules” of medieval European fashion helped me to break them in an informed way and create a different, but believable, culture. For example I created rules about head coverings for married vs unmarried women, fashion distinctions between nobility and peasants, and so on.)

Anyway, how do you get from Point A to Point B, you may be wondering? From a vague Google search to a collection of accurate depictions from the era? Here’s my advice on how to get there.

1. Know your date– this sounds so simple, but it’s really amazing how often people are ignorant of the actual dates of historical time periods! When I was 13 and working on my novel, I didn’t actually know that the medieval period is considered to be from about 1066 A.D. to about 1485. Further, I couldn’t possibly know that there are kind of three different sub-eras within the medieval period as far as fashion goes. Also, I’ve seen people on the Internet refer to Edwardian dresses as either “Victorian” or “1920s.” (People don’t seem to know that the Edwardian era is a time period that exists?) But hopefully you get the point. If you’re wanting to research the Victorian era, you should know it goes from 1837 to 1901. The Tudor era is from 1485 to 1603. And so on and so forth. Make sure you know the actual dates you’re trying to research before you do any research! Don’t just search for “Tudor dress” or “Victorian dress” and trust that the Internet will yield accurate results.


2. Use credible sources such as museum websites before looking at anything else. This is another things that seems like common sense, but alas, as a 13 year old I was looking at poly spandex “medieval” costumes on Ebay and thinking they were based off actual medieval styles! If I’m researching a new era (which I sometimes do because I’m only really familiar with a few eras), what I usually do is I go to Pinterest, search for whatever era I’m looking for (such as “18th century dresses” or “World War I dresses”), and I ignore things that look like costumes and I only save things that come from like, the Metropolitan Museum or the Victoria and Albert. If a picture doesn’t link to a trustworthy source, I don’t save it until I’m more familiar with the era.


3. This leads me to my next point, which is to beware of costumes and replicas. Some costumes in, for example, period movies can be so good that they fool even the most seasoned historical costumers! So you have to be careful. Read the descriptions of the dresses before using them as research. This is another good reason to use museums as your main source of research. A random blogger on Tumblr isn’t as likely to specify that a dress is a costume from a movie and not an extant garment. (An extant garment is a piece that was made in the actual time period and has survived till now.) I’ll be honest with you, I have made this mistake several times! For example, Christine’s pink masquerade dress from the 2004 Phantom of the Opera movie accidentally made it onto my 1870s board before I was very familiar with the 1870s or the POTO movie. Oops.

(Though not exactly accurate, it looks quite a bit like other 1870s ballgowns so it’s an easy mistake to make!)

4. In an era where extant garments and/or photographs aren’t available, rely on portraits and paintings. If you’re researching a time period like the Middle Ages, obviously there are no photographs, and there are very few extant garments left from 600 to 1000 years ago. Don’t panic though, because portraits and paintings from the time period are usually a pretty good source of fashions from the period. Just make sure the paintings are from a credible source like museum websites and you’re good to go! (Also, read the descriptions of them to make sure they’re within the right context.)

5. Don’t always trust what you see on blogs and YouTube. This is kind of redundant to the point about using credible sources, but I wanted to specify it because there are so many blogs and resources out there on the Internet and not all of them are good. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great ones out there that I’ve learned a lot from. (Such as Historical Sewing, Redthreaded, Damsel in Dis Dress, Sew Historically, Cathy Hay and The Dreamstress). However, there’s a lot out there that just spread downright misinformation. It may be trendy for bloggers and YouTubers to talk about vintage fashion, but they don’t always know what they’re talking about. I’ve seen so many “vintage fashion” blogs spread misinformation about, for example, corset wearing and how BAD and DANGEROUS corsets were. (*insert visible eye roll here*) And for someone who’s new to fashion history, I think it’s a lot to ask to determine if a blog is credible or not. So if you’re new, I recommend you stay away- except for the trusted few I mentioned- until you learn how to discern for yourself whether or not the blog is giving you accurate information. Which leads me to my last point…

6. Once you’ve intently studied the credible sources, you’ll be able to start identifying things yourself as accurate or inaccurate. It takes a while to get to this point. You have to be pretty knowledgeable about the time period and, quite possibly, have read up quite a bit from trustworthy books and blogs from historical costumers. I’m at this point with the Edwardian era by now, I’m happy to say! I can guess within a 3 to 5 year range what year an Edwardian dress was made and can instantly identify a cheap costume from an extant garment. I can even tell sometimes if a photograph is real or fake. But I’ve been obsessively researching the Edwardian era for more than 3 years and I had to spend a lot of time studying museum dresses before I got to this point. If you don’t feel the need to get to this point yourself- if you’re more of a casual learner and just want to avoid misinformation- that’s fine too!

I hope this post helped you out! If I knew these things when I was new to fashion history I would have avoided a lot of wasted time and misconceptions.


One thought on “How to Research Historical Fashion

  1. Hey! Medievalist jumping in to say that 500-1500 is considered a good definition of the Middle Ages. If you start it around 1066, you’re missing the entire Viking Age and a whole lot more wild and wonderful early medieval goodness. (Plus, the dates 1066 and 1485 are very Anglocentric, which is something to be aware of and push back against in this field in particular.)
    Thanks for putting so much good information out there! I really appreciate that you’re encouraging people to be specific and to pay attention to the provenance of images.


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