It has occurred to me that I’ve spent my entire adult life trying to make history accessible to others, first through efforts to make it relevant to twenty-eight years of pre-teens, and now through blog posts that I hope help make fashion history a little more interesting to anyone who cares to read them. It has also occurred to me that at no time has information been so accessible as it is today.
When I was in my senior year of college I had to write a thesis on some aspect of American history in order to satisfy the requirements of my history degree. I chose as my topic “The Effect of the American Civil War on the Moravian Communities in North Carolina.” I picked this topic because I knew I’d have access to primary sources that would supply the information I needed. The Moravians were meticulous record keepers, and many volumes of the records had been translated into English from German, and then were published.
Today I’d not have to be so picky when it came to picking a topic. Many historical organizations, museums, and universities are in the process of making their archives available digitally. This is a big deal for anyone who is doing historical research of any kind as it eliminates a lot of travel and expense.
It’s not just institutions that are revolutionizing the way research is conducted. One of the major digitizers is Google. The Google Books function not only makes available thousands of out of print books and magazines, the content of them is searchable through Google search.
I’ve mentioned a research project I’m currently working on – women’s hiking and camping clothing of the early twentieth century. Not only have some of you sent great links to information and images, but Google Books has made accessible resources that I’d otherwise not even have known of. My favorite is The Outing Magazine, with issues from the 1910s and 1920s being made available.
Fashion history can be found in all sorts of books. Because I have a source that supplies me with cheap books (also known as the Goodwill Clearance Center) I’m always picking up old books that I suspect might contain tidbits of fashion information. Books that relate to the history of women or to sewing and clothes making often have little insights into what women wore in the past.
I recently found a book published in 1942, as the USA was entering World War II. Women for Defense, by Margaret Culkin Banning was a call to action for the women of America, and included was how women were already working for the war effort. It contains all sorts of little details about dress that make primary sources so valuable, and fashion history so interesting.
Any account of American women in defense begins with these workers whose whole day’s labor is for victory. They are paid for their work, to be sure, but that does not mean they are not filling an emergency. It does not mean that they are not in uniform, nor out of danger. They are literally so in some places, as for example in the Frankford Arsenal where the women explosive workers are urged to purchase two simple cotton uniforms, one red and one blue, colors alternated weekly, in an effort to ensure the wearing of a freshly-washed garment at the beginning of each week. Not for style or becomingness is the color insisted on, and the fabric is lightly starched cotton – because it is somewhat resistant to fire.