UW News

May 15, 2023

Video: What to wear? UW Libraries explores age-old question

UW News

Around the world, people begin each day by deciding what clothes to put on their bodies. We may not give it much thought beyond “solid or stripe?” But a current exhibit on clothing at University of Washington Libraries’ Special Collections takes a closer look at the history of what we wear and how we share ideas about clothing. 

“Everyone wears clothes, making it one of the more personal and democratic forms of cultural heritage that we have,” said curator Kat Lewis, a UW Special Collections librarian.

Austrian couple in traditional clothing, 1930-1960Blanche Payne / UW Special Collections

The History of Costume, a yearlong exhibit, features a rotating selection of prints, books and artwork inspired by dress from the early 19th century to the present, located in the Allen Library South basement. “Costume” encompasses everything from smocks to frocks, shoes and hats, anything with which we adorn our bodies.

Outfits are a form of self-expression, says Lewis, but also denote gender, class and wealth. We can learn much about society at a particular time from clothes – how a piece was constructed, where it was worn, and who wears what. As fashionable silhouettes changed over the decades, trade and technology also introduced new textiles, like cotton, acrylic and even PVC used in rain Wear. Depicting costume has also evolved – Victorian fashion plates eventually became magazines where fashion photography became an art in itself. Lewis finds the advertising in fashion publications particularly interesting, providing details about what might be happening in society and culture at that time.

Painted sketch of women in slips on yellowing paper from a 1930's fashion magazine.

1920’s fashion magazineUW Special Collections

“A lot of the time, people think that clothing and gender expression is kind of frivolous,” said Lewis. “But there’s tons of important lines of inquiry about costume and clothing.”  

The exhibit changes quarterly, with materials and artwork on display through summer quarter 2023. More costume history resources can also be found in UW Libraries digital collections, from 1800s fashion plates to the Blanche Payne Regional Costume Photograph and Drawing Collection that looks at the former UW instructor’s travel and documentation of dress in the 1930’s in places like Central Europe and the Balkans. 

Lewis hopes the exhibit will be a starting point for those interested in learning more about costume. Appointments are available to see specific pieces from the Libraries’ costume-related collection in person. UW Libraries has the largest library collection in the Pacific Northwest and its Special Collections houses valuable resources regarding the history and culture of the Pacific Northwest and beyond.