Why a Costume Core?

Artifacts of historic clothing are in collections all over the world, including museums, historical societies, and archives. While many commonalities exist among the cataloging practices of such diverse institutions, there is no single widely recognized standard for cataloging costume. This is particularly problematic in terms of the lack of a single authority for vocabulary used for describing costume. Lacking a single authoritative source, numerous institutions have developed their own local authorities, each with very different terms. I have examined the existing public catalog records from several institutions that share their costume collections online, and I have found that there are many common threads running through these records (view a spreadsheet comparing the records).

I am part of a growing inter-institutional team including members from Smith College, UMass Amherst, Vassar College, Drexel University, and The Ohio State University, in the planning stages of developing an online resource,, that will aggregate information and images of historic costume and related archival materials from collections across the country. For objects from all of these collections to be shared seamlessly, a single metadata standard must be developed. It is also important that this standard work well with other existing standards, such as Dublin Core and VRA Core, so that the costume objects can easily relate to other contextual objects including documents, illustrations, and photographs.

Examples for this exercise were taken not only from objects I worked with in the Vassar College Costume Collection, but also from records available online from the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Australian Dress Register, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and records received from a contact at the Cincinnati Art Museum. This exercise was an exploration of adding numerous new elements that are specific to clothing, in an effort to use the digital platform to enable new research, allowing researchers to observe patterns from a large dataset and sort through very specific details. The HistoricDress team has begun to develop a digital tool that will help enable the dating of unidentified costume objects, based on the examination of specific structural details, following a process used by costume historian Nancy Rexford. These details are represented in the element set created here.


costume history, historic clothing, fashion history, material culture, metadata schema, metadata standards, cataloging, artifact analysis, controlled vocabularies, linked data, semantic web, data remediation, digital collections, visual thesaurus

Author Bio

Arden Kirkland is an independent digital librarian, providing consulting services for digital collections and online learning. She is an Adjunct Instructor for the iSchool at Syracuse University. As Project Coordinator for the IMLS-funded Design for Learning program, she led the development of a series of online modules about online teaching, released as Open Educational Resources (OER). Her years of work in higher education, especially at Vassar College, have included a focus on college students’ active participation in the construction of multimedia digital collections. Other recent projects include web development in Omeka for,, and the Hudson Valley Visual Arts Collections Consortium ( She holds an MSLIS from the iSchool at Syracuse University, along with an MFA in Costume Design from Rutgers University.


Work on Costume Core has been the result of conversations and collaboration over 20 years with costume historians, students, librarians, instructional technologists, digital humanities practitioners, and computer scientists. This project would not have kept moving forward without the continued support, at all levels, from Minor Gordon.  At Vassar: Holly Hummel, Ginny Jones, Sarah Goldstein, Matthew Slaats, Joanna DiPasquale, Kenisha Kelly, Pamela Prior, and many, many undergraduate students. For HistoricDress: Kiki Smith, Elisa Lanzi, Marla Miller, Nancy Rexford, Jon Berndt Olsen, Tom Scheinfeldt, Matthew Mattingly, Dave Hart. From the digital library community: Michael Lesk, Jian Qin, Marcia Lei Zeng, Susan Jane Williams, and Wen Nie Ng. From the costume history community (mainly through the Costume Society of America and Dig-Cost-Coll online discussion group): Kathi Martin, Gayle Strege, Marlise Schoeny, Helen McLallen, Arlesa Shephard, Kristen Miller Zohn, Renee Walker-Tuttle, Lindie Ward, Marcella Martin, Amanda Sikarskie, Connie Frisbie Houde, Daniel Caulfield-Sriklad, Monica Sklar, Leon Weibers, Dina Smith-Glaviana, Ykje Wildenborg.

(revised June 5, 2020)

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