N.Y. Library Offers Free Access To Fashion Trove

New York is known for its multibillion-dollar fashion scene. Now, seeing how it all began is much more affordable. A free digital database of all things fashion, from corsets to Valentino, launches this week at the New York Public Library. The fashion directory once cost a premium to peruse.

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Another trove of information is opening up to the wider public - information once closely held by a small coterie in the fashion world. So that fabulous black dress, it started out as a designer's vague idea likely inspired by fashion history. To see that history, designers and others had to pay thousands of dollars to subscribe to the directory of fashion.

Adam Davidson with NPR's Planet Money team says the cost was prohibitive for many - until now.

ADAM DAVIDSON: One of the most popular resources, the massive Berg Fashion Library, cost a small fortune. But this week the New York Public Library is announcing that any cardholder can access the online version for free from any computer. Here's Ada Calhoun.

Ms. ADA CALHOUN (Writer): Like I always wish that that whole wall of books, you know, that I use all the time actually had a search, so I could just type in, like, corset and then the books would, like, fly off the shelves and I would have the stack of exactly what I needed, and that's sort of what the online Berg does.

DAVIDSON: Calhoun is a writer working with everyone's favorite fashion guru, Tim Gunn, on a new history of fashion. She explained Berg is the world's best collection of pictures and articles about fashion. So now she can quickly do her search for corsets.

Some of these are, like, unsafe for radio - can't discuss them.

Ms. CALHOUN: Lucky we're not on the TV. Yeah, very scandalous.

DAVIDSON: Like the one from the 1670s, all pink ribbons and insanely tight waist. Or there's a few from the 1920s that are kind of dirty, and I don't think I can describe them.

Rebecca Chamberlain is a designer who finally can afford to comb through all of history for new ideas. She says most fashion designers start their work by making sort of a collage of images.

Ms. REBECCA CHAMBERLAIN (Designer): It's kind of like a, you know, a visual vomit of what's going on in your head and you want to put it up on a wall, and it's called a mood board and it is a big step in a design project.

DAVIDSON: Instead of just clipping recent fashion magazines, now with the public library thing Chamberlain can follow her whims. Like she's had this vague thought lately about folk music.

Ms. CHAMBERLAIN: Why am I thinking this? You know, I'm thinking - I've been listening to this music and so I'm thinking folk and is that, you know, let's see what folk brings us.

DAVIDSON: We do the search and a picture shows up of 1920s women in traditional Bavarian folk dress.

Ms. CHAMBERLAIN: German girls. There we go. See?

DAVIDSON: Those are great. You could wear those in Brooklyn.

Ms. CHAMBERLAIN: I was going to say, I don't know if I've seen that on the streets of Williamsburg.

DAVIDSON: That dress turned not to be so inspiring. Neither was the woman in Kosovo with the wild bonnet or the Turkish multicolored beaded outfit. But a few clicks later we find true inspiration - a woman in Botswana wearing a dark Victorian-era dress under a saffron shawl and this awesome wide-horned hat.

Ms. CHAMBERLAIN: You know, this is a secret image. Just to a fashion designer, this is like no one else has seen this. No one else. This is so special. I've found the next great thing.

DAVIDSON: Well, it would have been secret a few months ago. Now anyone with a New York library card can get it. That's the thing - free access is wonderful when you're searching for inspiration, but once you've found it, you don't want to share it with your competition.

Adam Davidson, NPR News.

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