People who haven’t known me very long are sometimes surprised to learn of my deep and abiding interest in clothes and fashion design. Day to day, I wear what basically amounts to a type of uniform—cardigan sweaters and pullover tops in various colors paired with dark trousers. It’s a system that works well for me and it makes rushed mornings a little easier since everything mixes with everything else. In my leisure time however I’m a devoted fan of fashion magazines and personal style blogs. What really fascinates me though is fashion history. Louis XIV, a fashionable monarch if ever there was one, famously said “Fashion is a mirror.” a statement with which I would have to agree. Think of the safety pins and black leather of 70’s punk culture or the uniform style of Communist China as examples of the way dress can reflect cultural and ideological change. As designer Katherine Hamnett has said, “Clothes create a wordless means of communication that we all understand.”
A fun blog that I’ve recently discovered is Threaded, Smithsonian magazine’s source for sartorial history. Here you’ll find well-written analysis of such fashion phenomena as the rise of the flapper in the 1920’s, sequins, and James Bond’s dinner jackets. Another very worthwhile site is The Fashion Historian. Katy Werlin, the historian, is a very engaging writer with an impressive depth of academic knowledge about clothing design and history. Her post on the Little Black Dress is worth a look just by itself. Also, very worthwhile is Wearing History. Blog mistress Lauren is a witty observer of fashion’s changing face. She’s also an incredibly talented seamstress with a taste for vintage fashion. Check out her re-creation of a blue corset from an 1877 Manet painting or the jacket based on an 1899 pattern and prepare for awe and amazement. Finally, I must mention Of Another Fashion. Its subtitle is “An alternative archive of the not-quite-hidden but too often ignored fashion histories of U.S. women of color.” This wonderful digital history features photographs (often of the donors’ mothers or grandmothers) of women and the clothes they wore. It is a gorgeous and fascinating look into the role fashion has played in the lives of American women of color. Don’t miss the photograph of Lucille Baldwin Brown. She was the first African-American librarian in Tallahassee, Florida and, judging by the photograph, possessed impeccable style. More proof that librarians are awesome!
Do you too enjoy the historical aspects of fashion? If so, DCPL has resources to help you indulge and learn.
Fifty Years of Fashion: new look to now by Valerie Steele is a must for any devoted student of clothing design. Steele is the current director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology and is a widely respected historian of fashion. The book appeared in 2000, so the most recent designers are not featured, but you will still gain a lot of great knowledge. Also by Steele are Paris Fashion: a cultural history and Women of Fashion: twentieth-century designers.
Most of us know Tim Gunn from Project Runway but he also served on the faculty at Parsons The New School for Design for many years and was the chair for the school’s department of fashion design. His book Tim Gunn’s Fashion Bible: the fascinating history of everything in your closet is a fun, very readable account of the antecedents of every sort of garment that we wear today. From jeans, to belts, to gloves, Gunn illuminates clothing history with his trademark wit and strong opinions (he really hates capri pants!).
Finally, I will mention a book that is a personal favorite of mine The Power of Style: the women who defined the art of living well by Annette Tapert and Diana Edkins. Not a history of fashion per se, it is nonetheless an entertaining collection of profiles of 14 women who embodied the very meaning of style throughout the 20th century. Some of the subjects will be familiar to most of us: Jacqueline Kennedy, Coco Channel, the Duchess of Windsor but others will be less known such as Rita Lydig, Daisy Fellowes, and Mona Bismarck. In any case, all these women led fascinating lives and were living embodiments that the quality of “style” goes far beyond wearing the latest designer. Highly recommended!