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Clothing, Costume, and Fashion: A Guide to Resources

This guide compiles resources about clothing and dress from ancient eras to the current day, including print materials, subscription databases, and external websites.


The history of clothing and costume reaches from antiquity to the current age. For millennia, clothing and costume were closely controlled by law, by rule and by governing opinions of the ruling class. “Sumptuary laws,” which varied by country and era, regulated clothing and dress based on a person’s caste, social status or wealth, and existed in every country that left written records. These early restrictions made it possible to ascertain a person’s profession, class, and rank with a glance, reinforcing social status. Sumptuary laws dictated rules such as heel height in shoes and boots; for garments, colors, textiles, and even ruffle size were controlled.

In the United States there were no such legal restrictions, however, social mores and standards specifically warned women not to “dress above their station.” Comparable social pressures are broadly found worldwide today.

In general, "clothing" and "costume" are often defined as a type of dress specific to a person's social class, era, or country of origin. "Fashion" and "style" suggest forms of dress made popular or predominant for a shorter amount of time, sometimes limited to a specific locale.

Although works on early clothing are included in this guide, the vast majority of published works on costume history, clothing and fashion focus primarily on the past three centuries. Magazines for women burgeoned in the mid-19th century, and often included fashion plates, sewing patterns, and other printed sources.

This guide includes works about clothing and dress from ancient eras to the current day, including resources on a variety of frequently requested topics, including Civil War fashions, Haute Couture, fashion histories and encyclopedias, menswear, accessories, native and ethnic clothing, and designer biographies. Theatrical costume and military uniforms are not included in this guide. Other guides on the Fashion Industry and the business of fashion, as well as additional costume and clothing resources are readily available by searching the Library of Congress Research Guides, using the following subject terms "clothing," "costume," and "fashion."

Many Guides on a wide variety of topics are available; browse a complete list of research guides from across all divisions of the Library.