“I’m Not Searching the Right Words”

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This study investigates the search processes of users accessing public websites representing historic clothing collections, examining where their searches are supported by the metadata in the collection databases and what factors could make their experience more inclusive. With IRB approval from four universities, we performed a recorded experiment with twenty adults: ten students of historic dress and ten fashion professionals. Four tasks included search scenarios and images representing diverse historic garments. Results indicate that both the descriptive metadata and search features on collection websites present challenges for the typical user search process. Users search for historical dress content the way they perform online shopping, relying on images, lay terms, and user-friendly search filters. Factors that influenced individual users’ experience included technology and ease of guessing, revealing a hesitation around international garments for fear of being culturally offensive if guessing incorrectly. Inconsistency of terminology used by different websites meant that even users who were familiar with professional clothing vocabulary faced challenges. Conclusions indicate a need for enhanced metadata, better use of international nomenclature standards, effective search filters, and basic images in databases. Furthermore, community involvement will improve public search tools and facilitate learning about different cultures.