Historians, technology and images – is it just window dressing?

This Tuesday I went to the launch of Archivi della moda del novecento (Archives of 20th century fashion), a web portal that aims to gather Italy’s rich contribution to modern fashion together in one place.  Information about designers and famous dress-makers, the clothes themselves as well as printed sources like magazines and catalogues are all there to browse through. So far the website is only in Italian, unfortunately, but it should still prove an excellent resource and hopefully an English version might follow at some stage

Listening to the talks by the various people involved in the project, I found the points it raises about public and private archives and what constitutes a national or shared cultural heritage, particularly interesting. Most of the material that the portal makes available – whether it’s a page from a 1920 department store catalogue, a publicity shot from a fashion show in the 1950s or a photograph of a textile in one of Florentine designer Pucci’s distinctive geometric prints – come from private rather than public collections. Quite a number of the designers are still in business and these artifacts are drawn from their own company records. Department stores, boutiques as well as tailors, dressmakers and couturiers all have records to draw on too. It’s not the kind of material that might usually be considered suitable for a public and national archival project, but together these sources do constitute one of Italy’s greatest cultural and artistic achievements in the twentieth century; the development of a distinctive ‘Italian style’ in design that became internationally renowned after 1945, and can be seen in everything from cars and furniture to fashion. Although the project receives public funding, it is also in part financed by several fashion companies who believe that by supporting the project, they are investing in their own heritage as well as helping to make it available to the public. When can the private and commercial be judged to have a public, cultural value then and should historians be looking for archives in yet more places?

The talks and presentations about the website also did an excellent job of highlighting its many uses, which got me thinking about historians and the ways that we use images, as well as how we use text, and present our research in general. With a project like the fashion archives portal, it’s the images that are the point; they are the detail, the argument and the explanation and of course they have to come centre stage. They also bring people face to face with what is being described; whether it’s a photo, a magazine or a great close-up image of a fabric, embellishment or clothing detail.  I wonder though if as a historian who has worked on clothes, if I’ve ever properly realized the potential of images, or whether I’ve just used them as illustration to fit around sections of text. I’ve tried to engage with them properly, and thought that this was what I was doing. But I’m not sure now that really engaging with images is as easy as I thought it was, especially when you are stuck in the rut of thinking like a traditional historian who writes books and articles with a nice, predictable linear structure: beginning, middle end, and with a few images included to back up my points. But thinking in terms of presenting the research online rather than in print, images can offer up new possibilities, and new ways of structuring the way the research is presented. I wonder if this this the way that historians should be thinking – not just in terms of books, articles or even boring old blogs, but new ways of presenting research, where the structure is not necessarily the linear textual one just transplanted online but something entirely differen

I’m thinking particularly in terms of my own research on Italian dress in the 1950s and 1960s at the moment, as I’ve amassed a huge collection of images in my research over the last two years, mostly from magazines and catalogues but some photographs too, and I’ve been trying to decide for a while how best to present them. I’m musing over the practicalities of this, but also thinking about the broader questions; should historians try to get away from the linear structure of traditional books and articles, or at least try to expand beyond it? Or if we do are we abandoning our claim to interpret ‘history’, leaving the reader or viewing to decide how to do it instead? I’d love to hear what other people think about some of these questions, or how others who have engaged with new technologies think about the possibilities and the issues they present.

Please comment below!

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