Google Creates a Digital Archive of World Fashion: Features 30,000 Images, Covering 3,000 Years of Fashion History

Both the fash­ion and art worlds fos­ter the cre­ation of rar­i­fied arti­facts inac­ces­si­ble to the major­i­ty of peo­ple, often one-of-a-kind pieces that exist in spe­cial­ly-designed spaces and flour­ish in cos­mopoli­tan cities. Does this mean that fash­ion is an art form like, say, paint­ing or pho­tog­ra­phy? Doesn’t fashion’s ephemer­al nature mark it as a very dif­fer­ent activ­i­ty? We might con­sid­er that we can ask many of the same ques­tions of haute cou­ture as we can of fine art. What are the social con­se­quences of tak­ing folk art forms, for exam­ple, out of their cul­tur­al con­text and plac­ing them in gallery spaces? What is the effect of tap­ping street fash­ion as inspi­ra­tion for the run­way, turn­ing it into objects of con­sump­tion for the wealthy?

Such ques­tions should remind us that fash­ion and the arts are embed­ded in human cul­tur­al and eco­nom­ic his­to­ry in some very sim­i­lar ways. But they are also very dif­fer­ent social prac­tices. Much like trends in food (both fine din­ing and cheap con­sum­ables) fash­ion has long been impli­cat­ed in the spread of mar­kets and indus­tries, labor exploita­tion, envi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion, and even microbes. As Jason Daley points out at Smith­son­ian, “The craze for silk in ancient Rome helped spawn the Silk Road, a fash­ion for feath­ered hats con­tributed to the first Nation­al Wildlife Refuges. Fash­ion has even been wrapped up in pan­demics and infec­tious dis­eases.

So how to tell the sto­ry of a human activ­i­ty so deeply embed­ded in every facet of world his­to­ry? Expan­sive­ly. Google Arts & Cul­ture has attempt­ed to do so with its “We wear cul­ture” project. Promis­ing to tell “the sto­ries behind what we wear,” the project, as you can see in the teas­er video at the top, “trav­elled to over 40 coun­tries, col­lab­o­rat­ing with more than 180 cul­tur­al insti­tu­tions and their world-renowned his­to­ri­ans and cura­tors to bring their tex­tile and fash­ion col­lec­tions to life.” Cov­er­ing 3,000 years of his­to­ry, “We wear cul­ture” uses video, his­tor­i­cal images, short quotes and blurbs, and fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phy to cre­ate a series of online gallery exhibits of, for exam­ple, “The Icons,” pro­files of design­ers like Oscar de la Renta, Coco Chanel, and Issey Miyake.

Anoth­er exhib­it “Fash­ion as Art” includes a fea­ture on Florence’s Museo Sal­va­tore Fer­rag­amo, a gallery ded­i­cat­ed to the famous design­er and con­tain­ing 10,000 mod­els of shoes he cre­at­ed or owned. Ask­ing the ques­tion “is fash­ion art?”, the exhib­it “analy­ses the forms of dia­logue between these two worlds: rec­i­p­ro­cal inspi­ra­tions, over­laps and col­lab­o­ra­tions, from the expe­ri­ences of the Pre-Raphaelites to those of Futur­ism, and from Sur­re­al­ism to Rad­i­cal Fash­ion.” It’s a won­der they don’t men­tion the Bauhaus school, many of whose res­i­dent artists rad­i­cal­ized fash­ion design, though their geo­met­ric odd­i­ties seem to have had lit­tle effect on Fer­rag­amo.

As you might expect, the empha­sis here is on high fash­ion, pri­mar­i­ly. When it comes to telling the sto­ries of how most peo­ple in the world have expe­ri­enced fash­ion, Google adopts a very Euro­pean, sup­ply side, per­spec­tive, one in which “The impact of fash­ion,” as one exhib­it is called, spans cat­e­gories “from the econ­o­my and job cre­ation, to help­ing empow­er com­mu­ni­ties.” Non-Euro­pean cloth­ing mak­ers gen­er­al­ly appear as anony­mous folk arti­sans and crafts­peo­ple who serve the larg­er goal of pro­vid­ing mate­ri­als and inspi­ra­tion for the big names.

Cul­tur­al his­to­ri­ans may lament the lack of crit­i­cal or schol­ar­ly per­spec­tives on pop­u­lar cul­ture, the dis­tinct lack of oth­er cul­tur­al points of view, and the intense focus on trends and per­son­al­i­ties. But per­haps to do so is to miss the point of a project like this one—or of the fash­ion world as a whole. As with fine art, the sto­ries of fash­ion are often all about trends and per­son­al­i­ties, and about mate­ri­als and mar­ket forces.

To cap­i­tal­ize on that fact, “We wear cul­ture” has a num­ber of inter­ac­tive, 360 degree videos on its YouTube page, as well as short, adver­tis­ing-like videos, like that above on ripped jeans, part of a series called “Trends Decod­ed.” Kate Lauter­bach, the pro­gram man­ag­er at Google Arts & Cul­ture, high­lights the videos below on the Google blog (be aware, the inter­ac­tive fea­ture will not work in Safari).

  • Find out how Chanel’s black dress made it accept­able for women to wear black on any occa­sion (Musée des Arts Déco­rat­ifs, Paris, France — 1925)
  • Step on up—way up—to learn how Mar­i­lyn Monroe’s sparkling red high heels became an expres­sion of empow­er­ment, suc­cess and sex­i­ness for women (Museo Sal­va­tore Fer­rag­amo from Flo­rence, Italy — 1959)
  • See design­er Vivi­enne West­wood’s unique take on the corset, one of the most con­tro­ver­sial gar­ments in his­to­ry (Vic­to­ria and Albert Muse­um, Lon­don, UK — 1990)
  • Dis­cov­er the Comme des Garçons sweater and skirt with which Rei Kawakubo brought the aes­thet­ics and crafts­man­ship of Japan­ese design onto the glob­al fash­ion stage (Kyoto Cos­tume Insti­tute, Kyoto, Japan — 1983)

Does the project yet deliv­er on its promise, to “tell the sto­ries behind what we wear”? That all depends, I sup­pose, on who “we” are. It is a very valu­able resource for stu­dents of high fash­ion, as well as “a pleas­ant way to lose an after­noon,” writes Marc Bain at Quartz, one that “may give you a new under­stand­ing of what’s hang­ing in your own clos­et.”

We wear cul­ture” fea­tures 30,000 fash­ion pieces and more than 450 exhibits. Start brows­ing here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Kandin­sky, Klee & Oth­er Bauhaus Artists Designed Inge­nious Cos­tumes Like You’ve Nev­er Seen Before

1930s Fash­ion Design­ers Pre­dict How Peo­ple Would Dress in the Year 2000

Punk Meets High Fash­ion in Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art Exhi­bi­tion PUNK: Chaos to Cou­ture

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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Comments (2)
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  • Bo Breda says:

    This will be an invalu­able resource for all of us who teach fash­ion at the col­lege lev­el. Thank you for mak­ing it avail­able.

  • Wole David says:

    Cul­ture is trend­ing when it comes to fashion,let colour play a vital role asset to view­ing audi­ence, every count has been brought up to accept a par­tic­u­lar colour as a local tra­di­tion that secures the mind and belief of an aspir­ing great­ness, e.g, Nige­ria moves the colours green and white sig­nif­i­cant to peace and progress, Amer­i­ca and Eng­land emu­lates traits of blue,red and white etc.Vivid recog­ni­tion on colours mixed in such forms in fash­ion brings a typ­i­cal brand to the world at large as cul­ture.

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