Visual Archive of World War II Fashions

An Introduction to the Project

As a scholar interested both in fashion studies and women’s studies, I am extremely intrigued by the ways women are portrayed in society, both by themselves and by others. I’m particularly interested in the ways people dressing themselves are influenced by major world events, or alongside shifts in culture and society.

To this end, the digital project I’m seeking to create is an online archive of imagery from the most widely circulated women’s periodicals during World War II. I believe that this opportunity for comparative analysis is likely to reveal not only sartorial trends, but perhaps provide insight to some of the psychological undercurrents within the society at that time which may have contributed to these choices.

The hope is that this type of archive would prove to be a thought provoking visual reference through which visitors could glimpse similarities and differences among various nations, and how these trends may have corresponded with certain key points in world history.

I also think this would be fun from a purely sartorial perspective, in that the world of the 30’s and 40’s had yet to experience the massive effects of globalization we see today. Countries had very unique looks, and traditions of dress. Even without the ongoing war, having a chance to make comparative analyses of these regions is likely to be a satisfying experience for people with an interest in vintage fashion.

User Personas

I believe the people who would access this archive are likely to be scholars of subjects at the heart of what this archive is seeking to analyze, topics such as fashion, women’s studies, periodicals, or World War II. Hopefully, however, this would also be of value to people outside of academia who simply have an passion for vintage fashions, or life for women in past generations.

Ophelia is currently teaching a freshman level fashion history course in a Fashion Design bachelor’s program. Though she knows that most of her students have had a lifelong interest in fashion, Ophelia is concerned that many of them are still thinking of design on only the most surface level of terms. She has designed the following research assignment that she hopes will encourage the students to contemplate fashion’s meanings a bit deeper:

Each student is tasked with researching vintage fashion resources to find evidence of times that fashion provided a visual medium for society to display a collective emotion, such as solidarity, patriotism, grief, etc.

To complete the assignment each student must:
-Find three visual examples portraying the same emotion or message.
-For each image they are required to provide information about where the image originated, the approximate date is was taken, along with information as to whether this date corresponded with any notable events that might have been happening at that same time.
-Students will each present their findings to the class.

Gwen is currently in a Women’s Studies program. She became interested in fashion as a symbol of protest after seeing the thousands of people wearing “pussy” hats at the Women’s March. Gwen came across the archive in the course of doing research on historical images of women during times of political turbulence to see if there were other examples of this type of politicized fashion.

Mike works as a bartender, but considers himself a fashion aficionado. He is particularly drawn to vintage fashions, as he thinks the quality of construction and the level of the designs far surpasses what the average consumer has access to today. He discovered the archive during a Google search of “women’s fashion periodical”. He later wrote about his thoughts on the imagery on his personal blog.
Use Case Scenario

A person would likely find this through means of an Internet search, which included terms at the core of this project such as vintage fashion, 40’s periodicals, women during World War II, etc. They would use it by clicking which countries they would like to analyze, and a time period.
This would allow them to see a visual analysis of the selected countries as specific points in time.

One thing that is very important to me in the creation of this archive is that it be freely available to anyone. On a number of occasions in the research of this project I have encountered numerous institutional roadblocks that prohibit people not affiliated with specific universities or institution to pay a fee to access the information. I would like to make sure that this can easily be found and accessed by anyone who is interested in viewing it.

The Full Fledged Version of the Project

In my idealized version of this project I would be able to include relevant fashion imagery from the top selling women’s periodicals from every country involved in the war. To give accurate perspective of the fashion shifts, in addition to the years of the war, it would also be important to include imagery from these same magazines published in the three years preceding the war, and in the three years following its conclusion.

It’s my intention that people could search the site in four different ways: by country (by means of a map), by the name of the periodical, by year, or by a timeline which includes notable historic events. This flexibility in search options would hopefully open up different paths of investigation that allow for the archive to be a more tailored experience from user to user, based on their specific area inquiry.

At this point, I’m not entirely sure what software would be the best match for making this project viable. In this iteration, there’s just no getting around what an incredibly large project it is. I’m seeing how this could quickly become (or already is) a victim of scope creep, so for now I’m definitely planning to go with a much abbreviated version.

Timeline undetermined.

Stripped Down Version

At this moment, it’s much more realistic for me to conceptualize this project in two drastically scaled down iterations.

The version making up the minimally viable product would consist solely of the United States.
Having imagery from only one country would negate the need for creating a map, though I would still want to allow users the option of being able to select imagery either by way of date, or by choose from and a list of publications. I think that I could also strip the timeline from this version, though I may want to include some information about significant dates during the war.

An advantage that I see in this extremely scaled down version of the project, is that I can spend a bit more time building in relevant background information about the publications themselves: who owned them, what other publications did they put out, what was the gender make-up of their editorial and administrative staff. Considering that extremely few women actually had active roles in creating these publication, analyzing who was running it and their afflictions could certainly shine a light on their possible motives behind what they promoted as fashionable, and why perhaps they were promoting it.

The software that I’m planning to use for this version of the project is Omeka. The attention this software gives to visuals and display, seems like the right match for a project like this where the imagery is intended to be at the forefront. At present, I have never worked with Omeka, but I’m planning to spend time learning the program this summer, so that when it is time to actually create the project a lack of experience will no longer be a hindrance.

In the research I’ve done thus far, I have already come across a wide array of the materials that I would need to bring this to life. I believe that I could easily complete this project in a semester’s time.

The iteration that lands somewhere in between the project’s ideal version and the minimally viable product, would be a project with the same search capacities as the ideal, but is inclusive of  just 3 countries: the United States, Italy and France. Not only do these countries contain the cities which are still considered to be the fashion capitals of the world, but they also played very disparate roles during the war. These varied experiences also attributed to their citizens experiencing the conflict in extremely different ways. For some, the war was something that was happening in a far away land, for others, it was happening right in the streets of their communities.

The same issues that made the timeline for the ideal project indeterminable hold true for this version. There would certainly be far less work involved with this iteration, but I’m not sure how to estimate at this point the learning curve I would need for the various software needed to create it. I think that starting with the minimally viable product is the best way for me to move forward with this project. Hopefully what I learn from bringing the much smaller version to life will help me to avoid some time consuming mistakes when I scale up. 




  • I would love to run across this project while browsing around the internet. Omeka is not too tricky and you can include the Neatline plugin, which allows you to create an interactive timeline with a map. You can even use historical maps. The back-end interface is a little clunky but if, for the fully-fledged version, you have assistance customizing Omeka, I think it might work really well for what you want to do. One question I have is about the nations/populations you want to include: WWII involved many nations in Europe that were not part of the Axis or Allied powers, Korea, Southeast Asia, neutral countries like Switzerland, and of course the Jewish diaspora. In your full-fledged project, would you consider including nations that were invaded or annexed, or “stateless” people? I don’t think you should attempt complete coverage just for the sake of inclusion, since that would definitely generate scope creep, but it could create some interesting juxtapositions to include — if there is any available — material from nations that were involved in or heavily impacted by the war, but not the main actors.
  • Kat, I wanted to comment to you at the end of last class, how awesome your project is. I love it. It tells a story of an era in a different way on how it is usually portrayed with explosions and destruction. I am so looking forward to the process of your project and seeing the final version.
  • What is not clear to me yet is what materials you are providing other than images. Or are you? Historical background? Social background? The background you suggest about the various publications. Again, if you can move through those images through a variety of search tools, that’s cool, but then what? Is the user creating the analysis, coming up with ideas about these shared emotions and zeitgeists, or are you? Perhaps the archive has some ready-made clusters, as examples, but then has a feature where users could also make “collections” that produce historical and social and psychological analysis. I think you need to determine not just what images from what time and place sit in your archive but what else and for whose use? Let’s start with just one of the users you imagine above. Building some of those images and resources into Omeka seems like a strong project for an ITP IS.
  • Profile photo of Luke Waltzer Luke Waltzer says:
    Omeka seems right for this, and Lisa’s suggestion of the Neatline plugin to add a timeline is a good one. Alex’s questions about how you balance what you present is important; we need to hear how you’ll contextualize the materials, which will have a significant impact on how users interact with and navigate the archive.

    My major concern, at this point, is where you’re going to find the artifacts you’ll want to present, many of which, I presume, will be under copyright. Omeka *may* afford you the opportunity to present contextualized materials hosted elsewhere, but you’d be getting into some potentially tricky terrain, there. Alternatively, you could draw your artifacts from imagery in the public domain, which is possible, but poses a research challenge. This is a fundamental question, and should be answered before you get much further along.

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