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The Met Museum Has a "Costume Institute" to Preserve the History of Fashion

From 1930s croquis to Naomi Campbell, take a look inside the Irene Lewisohn Costume Reference Library.
Naomi Campbell on the February 2003 cover of i-D Magazine. All images from @costumeinstitutelibrary

In an active effort to preserve the storied history of fashion, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Irene Lewisohn Costume Reference Library has everything from sketches of couture gowns to 16th century costume pieces. “The library actively collects books and periodicals that pertain to the history of fashion and dress from various countries and time periods,” says Julie Lê, the Costume Institute reference librarian. “We also collect materials that cover related subject matter that is often connected to fashion like pop culture and music,” she adds.


The library is important to the museum because “the beginning stages of every exhibition always start first in the library,” Lê points out. The Costume Institute Library collection currently contains more than 25,000 books and periodicals and more than 1,500 designer files pertaining to haute couture, regional clothing, and costume dating back to the 16th century. “Monographic or archival images of individual designers and fashion magazines make up a large part of our collection,” explains Lê to The Creators Project. “The library carries a lot of defunct magazines and more than 300 current titles.

The library’s Instagram account, which Lê runs, serves to highlight some of the collection's offerings. “Sharing library content through social media platforms such as Instagram provides remote access to those living outside of New York City or who are unable to visit the library,” explains Lê. The Costume Institute Library account has amassed more than 13,000 followers. “We have different types of materials within our library collection from different countries and time periods so we try to keep it varied. Our goal is to showcase the diversity and depth of our library and use the platform as a discovery tool for fashion inspiration.”

Lê sees the library as a place that holds value, even in the Internet Age. “It’s really important to know that not everything is found on the internet but these things can always be found in libraries,” Lê says. “Depending on the patron, the library holds multiple values. For a creative, it’s a well of inspiration they can draw from, and for researchers and scholars libraries are a depository of information where they can study the past,” says Lê of the library that is only accessible by appointment. “Libraries are so much more than shelves of books. Lately there has been a large interest in the 1990s, and we have an incredible book collection that is very popular,” says Lê who has observed more and more fashion stylists and photographers visiting the library.


Check out some more of the collection below:

The Costume Institute Reference Library even houses toys and fashion illustrations and objects that speak to the history of fashion. “Researchers are generally surprised when they find materials that are not in the traditional book format," Lê explains. “One of our researchers the other day stumbled across a limited edition set of Kidrobot toys customized by different fashion designers such as Karl Lagerfeld, Donatella Versace, and Miuccia Prada, and only 2,000 sets were made.”

Click here to learn more about the Costume Institute's Irene Lewisohn Costume Reference Library.


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