Digital fashion heritage is gaining momentum: ‘A wish of the museum sector’

After hopeful but also speculative discussions about digital fashion, concrete answers are needed. What can we do in a ‘phygital’ world, the interface between digital and real life, to advance the industry? A surprisingly quick response comes from the cultural sector: Digital fashion offers opportunities to better preserve, research and present cultural heritage to the public.

Due to the misconception that digital fashion is only for the online world, the benefits for museums are often overlooked. According to curator Anne-Karlijn van Kesteren, there is still a lot of ground to be gained here. She works at the Design Museum Den Bosch, where digital jewelry was exhibited for the first time this year in the exhibition ‘Screenwear’. It was the first exhibition of its kind in the Netherlands.

“We designed ‘Screenwear’ so that screens come at the viewer from all directions. This gives you the impression of standing directly in front of the objects,” says the curator. The missing haptics were replaced by mirrors that allowed visitors to ‘carry’ the objects. Van Kesteren describes the experience as “almost physical.” She sees the future of cultural heritage in the immersive presentation of digital works.

From the virtual exhibition to the ‘phygital’ experience

The first step towards digital fashion heritage in the Netherlands was taken in 2008, says Dutch art historian Bianca du Mortier in an interview with FashionUnited. At that time, du Mortier decided to exhibit 250 masterpieces from the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum online. “It went like clockwork. The visitors received a description of the property with dating and technical information. If that wasn’t enough, you could go a level deeper.” The project ultimately earned the Rijksmuseum a Dutch design award because you could zoom into exhibits in the online exhibition. This made it possible to see more than is possible with the naked eye in a conventional museum. “Viewers had the feeling that they were holding the fragile materials in their own hands,” praised the jury.

Fifteen years later, du Mortier is retired, but is involved in the next phase of digital heritage with the ‘Unlocking Fashion Heritage’ (ULFH) project. It is an initiative of Modemuze, a network of museums and experts that has been working since 2015 to make fashion collections digitally accessible. “With ULFH we want to display a hundred extraordinary objects in 3D and make them publicly accessible,” says coordinator Mila Ernst. “Viewers should feel like they are in a fashion exhibition, even though they are sitting in their own living room. We are concentrating on the opportunities to best capture the material expression and shape of clothing items and accessories and to expand this form of digitalization.”

Digitizing a Victorian dress. Image: Dylan Eno

Precise image or dynamic copy

According to Suzanne Mulder, fashion innovation coordinator at Centraal Museum in Utrecht, Netherlands, and co-founder of 3D studio PMS, there are roughly three technologies that museums are experimenting with, each with advantages and disadvantages. A scanned, static 3D model is an object that can be integrated into various environments, such as outdoors or a candlelit ballroom. On the other hand, 360-degree photography, which is easiest for museums because it takes place in a photo studio, is tied to a specific computer format.

“You can zoom in and see the garment from all sides, but we can’t add an avatar because of the lack of information from the pattern pieces or fabrics,” says Mulder. The same applies to a 3D model, where a physical garment is recreated using computer software. “You draw it by hand – just like you would make a real garment – ​​and then ‘stitch’ it together digitally. In this way, flat pattern parts can be visualized and the piece can be given a kind of eternal life because it can be changed again. By integrating additional information, for example about the fabric, it is possible to make the piece dynamic and depict human movements.” In this way, 18 pieces from the Utrecht fashion collection have already been brought to life. However, they are not original, “they are replicas”.

A close look at the fashion heritage

When it comes to communicating our cultural heritage, there are several reasons for museums to experiment with digital fashion. “I think the value of 3D is twofold,” says Mila Ernst. “On the one hand, it lies in the documentation of museum objects. Today this is done in two dimensions, meaning you can never really see the sides, back, sleeve panels and overall shape. When it comes to historical fashion, I don’t yet see the digital reconstruction of patterns as an option, but such a 3D model, in combination with model books, offers the opportunity to research how a piece was put together. Objects can be researched together in detail around the world. The knowledge about the fashion heritage of researchers, manufacturers, wearers and collectors flows together and receives new impulses.” According to Ernst, the imperfect digital versions that can already be seen in the museum also have a function. “The main thing is what everyone would like to do, but which is usually not possible because of the fragility of the objects: touching them and putting them on, getting close to them and placing them in any context.”

Expectations regarding sensitive collector’s items are particularly high. With the help of 3D models, conservators can, for example, restore them digitally, says the curator of the Utrecht Centraal Museum, Ninke Bloemberg. In the exhibition ‘From Fit to Polygon’, for example, a fragile dress from 1892 was shown that was only allowed to lie flat in a display case. Suzanne Mulder and her colleagues from PMS reconstructed it using 3D models: “In the exhibition you can first see it on a body, then in a fashion show, and finally how the designers reacted to it.” Like many historical pieces can still be brought to light in this way is difficult to estimate. Bloemberg speaks of five to ten percent – a rough estimate: “Sometimes you find a dress with tears in a box, attacked by the metal in the silk fabric. In practice, however, we do not manage to check all the boxes; this is done on a project-by-project basis.”

3D technology for fashion is not yet fully developed

Another example of such a ‘saved dress’ is the green robe in ‘To Die For’, a film by 3D designer Dylan Eno on the occasion of his graduation. In collaboration with the Art Museum of The Hague, he created an animated depiction of a Victorian dress dyed with the toxic substance arsenic. He captured over three thousand images using photogrammetry. “This technology is rarely used in the museum world,” says the young designer, “and I haven’t seen it in fashion houses yet.”

According to Eno, this has financial reasons: “The conversion into a 3D model is so time-consuming that there are enormous waiting times.” For him, the intensive use of data also raises the question of the sustainability of the digital heritage. He differentiates between data traffic and data storage. “Data storage can be done online on servers or offline on hard drives that do not require a constant source of power. The data traffic itself requires a variety of servers to send data from the host to the consumers. For this purpose, data centers are being built that are not exactly environmentally friendly. That’s why we need to keep 3D files on the Internet as small as possible without compromising quality. Clever optimization tricks are needed, and this is still a problem.”


Applying digital fashion developments to museum heritage requires special, critical working methods. For example, fit is important for faithful reproduction, explains Bianca du Mortier. “Most of the clothes in the Rijksmuseum are custom-made. So if we want to digitize, we have to make sure that the body we are photographing is correct. And the body structure is different depending on the time period.” Du Mortier cites a corset from the 18th century as an example. As a result, women had a very straight back, their chests sat higher than they do today and the dress above them fell differently. For this reason, some museums work with special dolls for each era or fill them in for 3D scanning. Du Mortier knows how time-consuming this is from her experience at the Rijksmuseum: “It often took two people a whole day to put a costume on the doll.”

The next steps to digital heritage

In this sense, people, not technology, are the biggest challenge in enhancing digital fashion heritage. “It takes time and personnel to prepare fragile collections for digitization, which means assessing the condition of the garment, preserving it if necessary and putting it on the doll in a historically correct manner,” explains Mila Ernst. “If you then consider the size of the fashion collections of the museums in the Netherlands and Flanders, we can foresee that 3D will not be widely used in the near future.” The Centraal Museum in Utrecht alone has ten thousand fashion objects.

Workers are also needed in the field of education. Suzanne Mulderer experiences this at the academies she works with. “The people who have a particular interest in this area often do not become teachers, but rather work in fashion companies, for example.” She also hopes that cultural institutions will grant more access to their collections so that students can learn about fragile pieces and to examine historical patterns for digitalization.

Digital heritage in its current form can be better, more sustainable and more accurate. Further research is essential, but there is also an urgency for rapid dissemination. After serious thefts, the British Museum in London decided to digitize its entire collection. With current technology it would take five years. This could be achieved more quickly.

This article originally appeared on Translated and edited by Heide Halama.