Sharing Historic Costume Collections Online



I recently re-read “Sharing Historic Costume Collections Online: Why and How”, an article that appeared in Dress in 2015. I chanced upon this article while skimming the table of contents of that issue not long after it arrived, when the journal was sitting on my kitchen table. My wife was in graduate school, studying costume history. She was a long-time member of the professional society that publishes Dress. I was working as a freelance software developer.

“Sharing Historic Costume Collections Online” was my introduction to digital museum collections and the digital humanities. The article discusses:

  • Collection Management Systems like Omeka
  • Vocabularies such as VRA Core, a “data standard for the description of works of visual culture as well as the images that document them”
  • Portals like the Digital Public Library of America
  • Major digital costume collections, including those at Drexel, Kent State, the Fashion Institute of Technology, the Costume Institute, and the University of North Texas
  • Issues of sustainability and accessibility that continue to challenge projects in this space

After reading the article I emailed the first author, Arden Kirkland. That email led to a collaboration that has continued to the present day. In the last five years Arden and I have worked on:

  • DressDiscover, a suite of open source web applications for digital collections of historic clothing
  • Costume Core, Arden’s ontology for describing artifacts of historic clothing
  • Paradicms, an open source, multi-paradigm Collection Management System

The Dress article anticipated much of our work together (a portal or union catalog for historic costume collections, visual workflows for describing objects) as well as projects Arden and I have discussed but have yet to implement (a visual thesaurus of costume terms, a web-based version of Pamela Schlick’s algorithm for dating historic garments).

These projects were my return to the world of knowledge representation, Linked Data, and Semantic Web technologies, which had been a focus of my undergraduate research.

Those same technologies have subsequently become a focus of my professional life. I certainly didn’t envision that in 2015. I was looking for new and interesting personal projects at the intersection of technology and my other passions, like history. Finding the Dress article just then was serendipitous. The path might have stopped there, if Arden had not been so enthusiastic about the possibilities of working with someone like me, with my technology background. Reaching out to her opened up a new world for me, and I am immensely grateful for all of the time and energy she has put into our collaboration in the years since.