Fashion History Collections

Find out more about Fashion History Collections in the IHR Wohl Library. We collect historical sources and guides to finding and using sources. This page shows examples of the rich sources for the history of fashion and taste, covering different kinds of fashion.


The library collects historical sources and guides to finding and using sources. Fashion history can be found dispersed throughout our collections, both in obvious and unexpected places. This guide shows examples of the rich sources for the history of fashion and taste, covering different kinds of fashion, for example architecture, interior and garden design, as well as clothing and the textile trades. Letters, diaries and travel accounts, estate accounts, trade records and parliamentary sources all have something to offer. The library collections are mostly arranged geographically, with a few topical collections such as Religious history and Military history.

Highlights from the Collections

Letters and Diaries

Editions of correspondence and diaries are very well represented in our collections. Themes cover tastes in clothing, interior and garden design, fashionable food, shopping, entertainment and holidays, fashion and clothing during a war. Many editions have extensive indexes. Examples include:

  • The Diary of Samuel Pepys. Full of rich descriptions of fashion and clothing:
    ".. and then to prepare my monthly account.. to my great sorrow, find myself 43l worse than I was the last month.. it has chiefly arisen from my layings-out in clothes for myself and wife.. a velvet cloak, two new cloth-suits, black, plain both- a new shag-gown, trimmed with gold buttons and twist; with a new hat and silk top[s] for my legs.. also two periwigs" (Latham, R. (ed.), The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Vol. IV, 1663, p.357-8)
  • Lettres de Madame, Duchesse d'Orléans, née Princesse Palatine: ".. La danse est donc hors de mode partout? Chez nous en France, dès qu'il y a une assemblée, on ne fait que jouer au lansquenet; c'est le jeu qui est ici le plus en vogue; les jeunes gens ne veulent plus danser." (14 May 1695, p.118) 
  • The letters of Sarah Harriet Burney: "I have been hearing a great deal about fashion at a Milliners Kitty Farquhar carried me to.- Short sleeves are to be worn this winter, with little muslin cufs like a shift sleeve, with wristbands & robbins.." (4 Dec 1792, p.2)
  • The letters of Letitia Hargrave: 'a woman's life in the fur-trade in Rupert's land', Western Canada 1838-52.
  • Our hidden lives : the everyday diaries of a forgotten Britain, 1945-1948: "I do hope women aren't going to fall for the new long skirt fashion. Now we have our chance to take a stand for commonsense and I hope we don't miss it." (Edie Rutherford, 3 September 1947, p.444)
  • The Mitfords: Letters between six sisters: "V. odd that the moment one buys something in Paris it turns up in Marks and Spencer & yet how many times when in London have I vainly tried to land some smashing bargain, combing Harrods, Dior & Marshall's Grès in vain." (Nancy to Deborah, 8 November 1964, p.424)

Travel Writing

A vast collection of travel writing includes commentary on everyday fashions and the exotic, on shops and shopping and the clothing industry. Examples include:

We hold a range of parliamentary sources for different countries, including Parliamentary Debates and Proceedings, Petitions and Reports and Acts of Parliament. Examples covering fashion and the textile industry include:

Regulations on fashion and hairstyles and sumptuary laws:

  • Draghi rossi e querce azzurre : elenchi descrittivi di abiti di lusso (Firenze, 1343-1345)
  • 1363: "The Diet and Apparel of Servants.. It is ordained.. that they have Clothes for their Vesture, or Hosing, whereof the whole Cloth shall not exceed Two Marks.. no Cloth of higher Price.. nor nothing of Gold.. of Silver embroidered.. nor of Silk.. and their Wives, Daughters, and Children.. The Apparel of Handicraftsmen and Yeomen: within Forty shillings.. Cloth of Silk nor of Silver, nor Girdle, [Knife, Button,] Ring, Garter, now Owche, Ribband, Chains, nor no such other Things of Gold nor of Silver.. that they wear no [Veil] of Silk, but only of [Yarn] made within the Realm, nor no Manner of Furr, nor of Budge, but only Lamb, Cony, Cat, and Fox". (Statutes of the Realm, 37 Edward III c.8-15 - it goes on to describe the prescribed apparel for Esquires and Gentlemen, Merchants, Knights, the Clergy and Ploughmen)
  • Rich apparel : clothing and the law in Henry VIII's England
  • 1746: "No man or boy, within that part of Great Britain called Scotland, other than such as shall be employed.. in his Majesty's forces, shall.. wear or put on the clothes commonly called Highland clothes (that is to say) the plaid, philebeg, or little kilt.. no tartan" from An Act for the more effectual disarming the highlands in Scotland' (19 George II c.39).

Trade regulations:

Conditions for workers:

  • Parliamentary Debates and Reports include much information about the conditions of workers in textile factories, debates about the education of child workers, families working together, working hours, safety etc.
  • Acts of Parliament relating to factory conditions and slavery.

Other sources:

For further information on our UK parliamentary collection, see our collection guide.

Military Sources

Descriptions and Regulations on soldiers' clothing

Soldiers' diaries 

  • "We were mustered into the U.S. Service last Tuesday.. We got our uniform the day after. Our uniform is all grey. We have roundabout coats and loose pants. It is the best fighting rig imaginable" (22 July 1861, p.7).. "Well, mother, the principal object of my letter is to ask you if you will send me a couple of summer shirts.. We cant draw any but thick coarse cotton & wool shirts, & the weather is so excessively hot that they are rather uncomfortable". (8 August 1864, p.91) from Letters home : Henry Matrau of the Iron Brigade

Civilian description of soldiers' dress 

  • "It is true that men in uniform somehow always look more impressive than when they come along in a civilian suit. So that women naturally somehow  always look at those in uniform. Always. Whether they're in the the Luftwaffe uniform or the navy, which was even more chic" (Interview with Frau Maria von Lingen in Frauen : German women recall the Third Reich, p.121)


Religious sources

  • Many travel accounts and other personal narratives contain descriptions of religious vestments.
  • Sources describing dress worn for religious reasons.
  • Monumental brasses and tombs are a good source of images of clothing.
  • Persecution of Quakers for refusal to remove hat: "John Ellis beeinge summoned to appeare before Peter Ceely was for nott puttinge off his hatt to P : Ceely & James Launce cal[led Justices] committed to Goale & was throwne into Doomsdale and cruelly used.." from Record of the sufferings of Quakers in Cornwall : 1655-1686, 1666, p.3.
  • Vestments during a papal funeral: "They clothe him in trousers, a shirt, boots and tunic.. next.. dress him completely in sacred vestments of the colour red: first white sandals, a belt and an under subcintorium [under-belt], fanon, stole, tunicle, the maniple, dalmatic, gloves, cape, assuming the pallium of the body of Peter.. they place on his head a white biretta with a white mitre without pearls and gold. From Le ceremonial d’Ameil by Pierre Ameil (d. 1401), Master of Ceremonies under Popes Urban VI and Boniface IX. Published in Dykmans, Marc. Le ceremonial papal de la fin du Moyen Âge à la Renaissance, T. 4., p. 219

Business and Trade Records

Livery Companies 

The library holds a strong collection of histories of London livery companies and editions of related sources, these include:

  • Merchant Taylors
  • Clothworkers
  • Pattenmakers
  • Drapers
  • Haberdashers
  • Dyers
  • Fan Makers
  • Feltmakers
  • Glovers
  • Weavers

Other collections of sources

Letters and accounts of people involved in trade

Factories and Mills

Directories and catalogues

These are a rich source of information about fashion and the fashion trade, containing lists of suppliers, shops and advertisements.

We hold many Trade Directories from London, English counties and the British regions, and a small number from other parts of the world, for example Custom House Guide, United States, 1943

The collections also include some Exhibition catalogues from the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the 1862 International Exhibition. Both contain illustrations and descriptions of the latest furnishings and innovations in textile manufacture, along with list of suppliers and illustrations of machinery and factories.

Newspapers and Magazines

Newspapers are a good source of information on contemporary views of fashion, and also advertisements for businesses and products.

"Punk, by its implicit inferiority, can be seen to be a violent reaction to a certain staleness, or should it be tameness, of silhouette in recent seasons" in 'Riding the new wave with punk chic', The Times (London, England), Thursday, Oct 27, 1977; pg. 16; Issue 60145 from The Times Online.

Online newspaper collections (onsite only)

Printed C18th and C19th century periodicals

Compilations from newspapers

  • The arts and crafts in New York1726-1776 and 1777-1799  (New York Historical Society): Compilation of advertisements and news items from New York City newspapers, indexed to include entries on the decorative arts, fabrics and needlework and costume, giving lots of information on fashion and the clothing trade. There are detailed descriptions of servants' clothing in adverts about runaway servants. 
  • My day : the best of Eleanor Roosevelt's acclaimed newspaper columns, 1936-1962: Views on men's fashion: "I never have understood why every member of the male sex had to dress in the same way..." (p.173-4). Shopping: "..since Friday was a difficult day to get around the streets of New York, I decided to go out and buy a spring hat! I bought two of them, in fact, in Sally Victor's and I hope that by April, when I finally receive them, the weather will not resemble that of last weekend" (p.232).
  • Selected writings of an eighteenth-century Venetian woman of letters: " will know if they should attend to their affairs with collars of many or few layers, with a minuet step, or with an English air. Women will know if they can manage their families better with great or small circumference in their dress, and to what braccio italiano the height of their coiffure should correspond". (Elisabetta Caminer's tongue-in-cheek 'Review of the new fashion supplement to the Tuscan Gazette (1777)', p.191).

Online Resources

Online resources

See full list of online resources. Below are a few examples of resources that could be useful for this subject (most are available onsite in the IHR or via subscription only):

Periodicals and Theses


We hold a wide variety of history periodicals, the current issues are on open access in the library, back copies are available electronically or in the store. The Bibliography of British and Irish History and equivalent national bibliographies for other countries form a good starting point for browsing periodical literature. Access to JSTOR and other electronic databases is available within the library.


For history theses across other universities, see History Online. See further information on theses holdings at the IHR library. These are a few examples covering fashion history:

Further Help

Contact us if you would like help on finding or using our collections, or if you have any comments or suggestions about the content of this guide. We are happy to help.

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