If you are interested in costume history or vintage sewing patterns, you will probably enjoy a visit to this amazing website. The Commercial Pattern Archive (CoPA) is a searchable database — with pictures — of more than 56,000 vintage patterns. It gives you access to vintage patterns from several collections: 46,500 patterns from the 1840s through 2000 in the collections of the University of Rhode Island; plus many patterns from the Kevin L. Seligman Collection at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) (18,000 items!) and patterns from individual collections and other museums. More patterns are being scanned and added regularly.
Parallel Worlds with a Common Interest in Fashion History: Collectors, Costumers, and Theatrical Designers
The CoPA site is a project of the Costume Commission of the USITT. (The United States Institute for Theatre Technology.) Theatre Technology isn’t just about lighting instruments and scenery materials; over the years, the Costume Commission — people who design and build costumes and teach costume history, etc. — has become its largest (and a very active) division. As a former member (now retired) of the USITT, I’d like to introduce the resources of USITT to members of the Vintage Fashion Guild, costume re-creators, vintage collectors and other researchers. We all have a lot in common!
You Can Sample CoPA Searches: Give It a Try!
Although you may want to subscribe in order to make full use of the scanned patterns and the entire CoPA collection, you can access sample searches by clicking here. There is a lot of information available to anyone — for free. If you want an overview of patterns and fashions from, say, 1920 to 1929, just scroll down to 1920 and then hold Shift as you scroll to 1929. If you want to see every sample in that time period, leave all the other settings on “Any.” If you want to limit your search to a certain type of garment (e.g. bathing suits) or a specific designer, or just one pattern company, or a keyword (e.g., “halter,” “corset,” or “pedal-pushers,”) that is also possible. If you want to search the whole archive, select all the Collections, the same way you select a range of dates. You can do repeated sample searches for free. CoPA says this gives just a sample of the collection, but I was able to date five of my undated Vogue designer patterns in a few minutes. (They happened to be included in the collection. However, you can also use the search to place your pattern within a number sequence, even if you don’t locate that specific pattern.)
If you want to take advantage of the entire collection and be able to see images of the pattern pieces as pictured on the envelope, so that you can drape a version of the pattern on a mannequin, you will need to subscribe, but the subscription only costs about $10 a month (Minimum of 4 months. There are Group Subscription Rates, too. See below.)
Explore the CoPA Site for More Great Information
Across the top of the screen are several other pages worth a look. SAMPLE allows you to explore the ways you can use the search engine to find and date patterns or review fashion history. Read about the history of CoPA site at PROJECT. The FAQ explains how the patterns were dated and answers other Frequently Asked Questions about the archive. INSTRUCTIONS will help you to use the search engine and to print images. [Note: The USITT member who showed me this site says that MAC users sometimes have problems; the sample search works wonderfully with my PC.] PARTNERS is especially interesting because it lists several other pattern collections in the United States, Canada, and England, with summaries of their specialties, plus contact and visiting information. Some of these collections are represented in the CoPA Archives. You may discover a collection near you; for example, the Sterling Historical Society in Sterling, MA has “a good representation of very early Butterick patterns and papers.” The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has 18,000 patterns and pieces of fashion ephemera that belonged to USITT member Kevin L. Seligman. These collections can be visited by appointment. [Note: some of the Partners information is being revised. CoPA is an active, growing database.]
More Information about the Commercial Pattern Archive
Here is some other information from Joy G. Emery at the University of Rhode Island, who has been working on the CoPA project for many years:
“All proceeds from the subscriptions are used to pay student assistants working in the archive. In addition to the patterns we have an extensive collection for fashion and tailoring materials that are available to visiting researchers.
“Unfortunately subscribers can’t search with a specific pattern number. But looking at the pattern company and year(s) (determined by the style of the fashion), it is easy to determine what year the specific pattern number was issued.
“We don’t include separate numerical lists of each pattern company’s numbers. However, there is an option to view a list of 200-plus company numbers for the patterns in the Archive by hiding the images.
“Questions about group membership – and any other questions regarding the database or archive can be referred to firstname.lastname@example.org .”
Book to Watch For: A History of the Paper Pattern Industry
A History of the Paper Pattern Industry: The Home Dressmaking Fashion Revolution, by Joy Emery, will be published at the end of May by Bloomsbury. This should be of great interest to collectors and fashion historians. Thanks to Joy for sharing all this information in her book and on the CoPA Database, for generously including her own pattern collection in the database, and for her help in checking this post for accuracy.