Google has built a stunning, searchable archive of 3,000 years of world fashion

Everything has a story.
Everything has a story.
Image: Screen capture of Google's "We Wear Culture"
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Google’s latest project may be the most widely accessible and comprehensive fashion collection on the planet. All you need to view it is an internet connection.

“We Wear Culture” is a collaboration between Google and more than 180 museums, schools, fashion institutions, and other organizations from all parts of the globe. It’s part of Google’s Arts & Culture platform, which is digitizing the world’s cultural treasures, and functions as a searchable guide to a collective archive of some 30,000 fashion pieces that puts “three millennia of fashion at your fingertips,” Google says.

But it isn’t just a database. Google has worked with curators to create more than 450 exhibits on different topics—say, how the cheongsam changed the way Chinese women dress—making the site an endlessly entertaining, educational portal filled with stunning imagery touching on everything from modern Japanese streetwear to the clothes worn at the court of Versailles.

The sprawling site uses a variety of different formats to let viewers explore objects. An interactive video about a piece by Coco Chanel briefly outlines the history of black clothing and how Chanel made the little black dress a wardrobe staple.

Detail shot of the Devereux bodice
Up close with the Devereux Bodice.
Image: Screen capture from Google's "We Wear Culture"

Another section lets you explore garments in intricate detail through ultra-high resolution photography. One 16th century bodice reputedly given to Elizabeth I of England by the mother of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, is a beautiful example of craftsmanship and popular embroidery motifs at the time. The gift was a plea of clemency for Devereux, which evidently didn’t work; the site notes he was later executed for treason.

“We wanted to show that fashion is much deeper than just what you wear; that there’s a story behind it, there’s people behind it, there’s influences that come from art, that come from music, that come from culture more broadly,” Kate Lauterbach, program manager for Google Arts & Culture, told Business of Fashion (paywall). “And we thought that if you can have this kind of singular resource online where all of this was starting to be discussed—and hear it from the authority, I think that’s really critical—it would be valuable.”

It’s easy to get sucked into the site, perhaps scrolling through a timeline on the history of shoes, and then skimming through the stories of different designers and trendsetters. It’s a pleasant way to lose an afternoon, and may give you a new understanding of what’s hanging in your own closet.