Many years ago (in 2000) I was writing a story that took place in a magical analog of China. In an effort to incorporate Chinese culture I did a boatload of research, but you know what I couldn’t find? Clothing. Sure, everyone mentioned dragon robes, but that was it. And I was pretty sure that the common folk weren’t wearing those. Searching “traditional Chinese women’s clothing” over lunch brought up all sorts of pictures of naked white women. While I was at work. Fun times. I ended up having a university friend borrow a book I couldn’t get access to. It was fantastic, but this was a really slow process.
The internet has evolved a bit since then, though I’m sure there’s lots I’m missing in historical and world textiles. Most notably, I don’t have a lot of good resources on traditional clothing from the Middle-East or the many countries and cultures of Africa (which people online seem to think is one country, rather than a continent with many distinct cultures). As I hunt down some of these missing pieces, I’ll add them in.
Discusses a couple of types of patterned cloth from different parts of Africa, and a video on Ghanaian weaving.
Chicago History Museum Costume and Textiles Collection
If looking specifically for pictures, check out the collections highlights online.
Technically a shopping site, but it features historical and traditional clothing used for Chinese theater, Beijing opera, and Chinese dance. Lots of photos, which can be handy.
Cold weather clothing evolution from the early 1900s
The website of costumer and cosplayer Artemisia Moltabocca, who collects historical clothing patterns.
The history of dress is a good overview that includes most of the world, but does not go into great detail on any apparel.
Everything You Need to Know About Fighting in a Ballgown
Tor captured and contributed to the discussion started by a series of tweets by Melissa Caruso regarding the myths and realities of fighting in robes and dresses, and the fact that this is really not as impossible as some folks seem to believe. This is a lovely companion piece to How to do Karate in a Victorian Dress by Marie Brennan.
This one’s light on pictures, heavy on words, and gives more thorough information on the historical applications and uses of clothing throughout the world.
Find Your Next Hairstyle
This UK Hairdressers’ website is a useful resource for quickly finding hairstyles for your characters. It focuses on more trendy looks, so out of date styles may not be here. It also definitely has a white Euro-centric bend to things.
Historical fashion and costume design. Lots of photos of historical clothing from auction houses and museums.
Tumblr blog with modern and traditional Chinese clothing. Some of the traditional hanfu posts have really nice comparison between various styles of apparel.
Google Arts & Culture – We Wear Culture
In addition to curated stories about fashion, the history of clothing, and information on how fabrics are made, the site partners with museums all over the world so you can look at clothing from all over the world. Photo heavy. This is relatively new and is growing over time
Tumblr blog featuring traditional Chinese clothing.
Images and information from the “Fashion Accessories from Head to Toe: 1600 to 1840” exhibit, as well as the 2002 “The Language of Clothing” exhibit from the Colonial Williamsburg art museum’s 18th- and 19-century clothing collection.
National Museum of Denmark Viking Collection
Viking clothing and accessories.
Medieval Clothing Pages
Eurocentric. Descriptions and pictures
Real Ancient Warrior Hairstyles for Men – Vikings, Suebian Knot, Scythians
Have you ever wondered how historically accurate the hairstyles are on tv shows? The answer is usually: not very. Silvousplaits’ video walks you real historical hairstyles worn by ancient warriors such as the Suebi, Scythians, and the Vikings.
Real Men Real Style – Suit Fit
While this is intended to help men figure out when a suit fits properly versus when parts of it are too large or too small, this video may be super helpful for writers who need to describe a person in a suit. Not sure what a break is when referring to pants? Never heard of sleeve pitch or the dreaded X? This is a good starting point. If you prefer to read or skim your content, check out the companion article “How Should a Suit Fit? Your Easy-to-Follow Visual Guide.”
Pattern website focused on the study of historical clothing. While their images are not of actual historical pieces, they focus on historical accuracy of their patterns.
San Diego History Center Historic Clothing and Textile Collection
American clothing from 1830s forward
Top 10 Ancient Chinese Clothing that Were Popular in Ancient China
With only ten items, this list is far from complete, but it hits some of the high points.
Traditional Chinese Clothes — Hanfu, Tang Suit, Qipao, Zhongshan Suit
Light on pictures, heavier on information on Chinese clothing features (design, color, materials).
Vintage American Hats
The Minnesota Historical Society has recently digitized their collection of hats and headgear.
Vintage Patterns Wikia
Editable sewing patterns 25 years old or older, going back to the 1890s. These are primarily American patterns from a time when a lot of clothes were made at home or by seamstresses (if you could afford such things). Even if you don’t need the patterns (or the concept of patterns for your story) there are pictures, so you’ll have a good idea what the clothes looked like.
Check out my other research and resources for writers posts here.