By Erin Moonyeen Haley
Punk fashionista and platinum businesswoman, Vivienne Westwood, once said: “The best fashion accessory is a book.” Styled with that logic, it's clear that the superlative gift for any fashion savant, clotheshorse, accessories junkie or shopaholic who is also a book lover is to mix fashion and reading. Whether it’s a book that prowls the streets for Harajuku fashion, a text that relishes the peacocking of dapper dress or a coffee table Phaidon tome that obsesses over the history of haute couture, books are the treasure chests for this season’s fashion-conscious and fashion-forward.
Writer, historian and Professor of History at the Graduate Center, CUNY, Tanisha C. Ford has astutely recognized and written about fashion, not as a superfluous element bobbing errantly in pop culture, but as a critical cog in the overall matrix of society. Ranked on the Root 100 list of most influential African Americans in 2019, she has authored such books as Dressed in Dreams: A Black Girl's Love Letter to the Power of Fashion and Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style and the Global Politics of the Soul.
Dressed in Dreams - which has been optioned by Sony Pictures TV as a live-action series adaptation, to be produced by Freida Pinto and Gabrielle Union - is almost nonchalant in its intimacy as it highlights how specific items of clothing - from dashikis to bamboo earrings - can always take us back to hearth and home. Liberated Threads dives into the evolution of the Black Power movement, reminding readers that fashion always has a place in emancipation.
With a cover that stimulates margarita and jolly rancher cravings, Fashion, New Edition: The Definitive Visual Guide by DK and the Smithsonian Institute is an encyclopedic text that can act as a quickie reference guide, as a prop for a Devil Wears Prada sequel or as an investigatory opus for a swan dive into all things fashion history, from menswear, hosiery, corsets, dresses and beyond.
For the fashion maven hankering for the dark, albeit expressively rich 90s, Champagne Supernovas: Kate Moss, Marc Jacobs, Alexander McQueen and the 90s Renegades who Remade Fashion by Maureen Callahan is the ultimate read. While the book spotlights the personalities that launched such terms as ‘heroine chic’ and ‘alternative decadence’, it also focuses on the struggles of an era that burned white-hot, even without the glare of social media.
Fashion and beauty are interchangeable concepts, and nowhere is that more evident than in The New Beauty: A Modern Look at Beauty, Culture, and Fashion edited by Gestalten and Kari Molvar. The book is as much philosophy and social commentary as it is a fashion and beauty exposition, with an investigation into the chameleon-like capabilities of both aspects of individuality. It is precisely the individual that is anatomized, with a look at how contemporary fashionistas and beauty mavens focus on expressing the innerself while also feeling blazingly confident in one's own skin. The book makes it clear that the days of homogenized fashion are in the rearview mirror, as various isms - from feminism to classics to ableism - dominate socio-political conversations, finding a natural outlet in the very art forms we put on bodies and faces.
Words like ‘French’ and ‘style’ will never be fully divorced from one another. The book The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafes, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour by Joan DeJean launches into a full investigation as to why that is so. To make her argument, DeJean goes back to the baroque extravagance of Louis XIV before segueing into the debut of celebrity hairdressers and cafes that assumed the mentality of Enlightenment-era Salons. The word ‘style’ is given a full autopsy, a thorough cavity search so that its official etymology and influences are understood and easy to spot in the wild.
The cover alone of Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem: A Memoir by Daniel R. Day is a portrait of masculine grace and elegance. As for the book’s description, it reads like a tagline for a film destined for the Cannes Film Festival: “With his now-legendary store on 125th Street in Harlem, Dapper Dan pioneered high-end streetwear in the 1980s, remixing classic luxury-brand logos into his own innovative, glamorous designs.” But Dapper Dan’s story isn't just about haute couture and its accessibility; it’s about the hustle inherent when one comes from a gritty socio-economic reality and knows they are destined for greater, finer things. Whether Dapper Dan was learning how to treat fur because no boutique was going to do so for a Black Man, or he was keeping kids away from drugs, his is an epic story where fashion is both the method and the indulgence.
Ingrid E. Mida is a dress and art historian who delivers the best of both worlds in Reading Fashion in Art. The book is nothing short of luscious as it examines the art in both famous paintings and lesser-known gems, letting readers play student in what amounts to a thorough cultural dissection. The book is both academic and pleasurable, with the first section teaching readers how to scrutinize a painting in its entirety, before breaking down its cultural nuances based on clothing. With pieces by such artists as Elisabeth Vigée le Brun (think Marie Antoinette) and Marcel Duchamp (think Dadaism), there is a painting for every palette.
Sometimes the most interesting aspect of fashion is not in its production, but in how it actually gets into the hands of shoppers. In Goodwill to Grunge: A History of Secondhand Styles and Alternative Economies by Jennifer Le Zotte, assistant professor of history and material culture at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, garage sales, flea markets and thrift stores are under the microscope. The question posed is: What effect does thrift shopping have on trends and fashion passions? What happens when corporations like Goodwill Incorporated transition from supporting the needy to metastasizing into de facto boutiques that the rich plunder just to make a statement? The book is also ideal for the civically minded, as it ties its treasures to such movements as LGBTQ rights and anti-war crusades. The closing reminder is that, ultimately, second-hand stores are bastions of social and political expression.
The Palace of Versailles has forever been a hothouse of intrigue, style and gossip. But on November 28, 1973, it doubled as a debutante ballroom for American fashion. Pitched as an event to restore the glory of King Louis XIV's palace, the night was a fashion super bowl with the Americans - Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Halston, Anne Klein and Stephen Burrows - competing against the more established and revered French fashion houses of Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, and Marc Bohan of Christian Dior. Such glitterati under one opulent roof was enough to cement the night in history, but what made it so memorable was the fact that America outperformed the French competition. Pulitzer-Prize-winning fashion journalist Robin Givhan captures all of this and more in Battle of Versailles, schooling readers in the little-remembered fact that, on that night, in the most Francophile of locations, American fashion was born.
Depending on how one looks at the equation, fashion and art have either been bosom buddies from day one, natural allies or partners in crime. Art X Fashion: Fashion Inspired by Art by Nancy Hall-Duncan explores this relationship in terms of inspiration and production, examining how designers such as Elsa Schiaparelli collaborated with Dali and how Coco Chanel went from socializing with Picasso and his then-wife dancer Olga Khokhlova, to finding a reservoir of creativity to channel into garments. Lesser-known homages are also highlighted, such as the 1965 Mondrian Revolution brought to the fashion world by Yves Saint Laurent. Every collaboration described makes it evident that perhaps the relationship between fashion and art might actually be one of true love.
Look closely at the cover of Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present by Alison Matthews David and prepare for a little shock. Double dipping in the waters of the macabre and the magnificent, the academic text chronicles the gruesome, (albeit glamorous) history of clothing in how it relates to Death. Whether it’s abdomen-crushing corsets or strangulation scarves, (think Isadora Duncan), the reputation of clothing is revamped in all its plausible cruelty. But David’s scholarship goes beyond wearers who were killed by mercury-soaked garments and dancers whose skirts caught fire; she looks at how the manufacturing of fashion upped the body count as well, most famously in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911. Anyone who reads this book will never look at fashion the same way again.
The 1970s were a prism of iconic images, each flashing and flaunting themselves onto the other. Watergate, Bowie, disco, Jerry Hall, Rolling Stones, women's rights…the era had a distinctive flavor that gave it a bombastic reputation of plastic-on-shine excess. In Grit and Glamour: The Street Style, High Fashion, and Legendary Music of the 1970s, photographer Allan Tannenbaum looks at musical icons and cultural superstars, capturing their essence in black and white subtly, compartmentalizing pictures into such categories as street scenes, entertainment, nightlife and the arts. With accompanying commentary, no proverbial stone is unturned in this excavation of the decade.
Gazelle glasses, suede Pumas with the thickest of laces, shearling coats, shell-top Adidas and leather jackets are all on display in Back in the Days with photography by Jamel Shabazz. The book zeroes in on the years 1980-1989, a bookmarked era when breakdancing and door-knocker earrings dominated the street scene. Each image is intimate in its focus on individuals who were from the streets versus random models plunked in place for the sake of some pre-Instagram era shot. The result is a capsule of vintage images that makes one almost hear the syncopated rhythms and beatboxing. Any reader wanting to know more need only read the text's tagline: “For anyone who wants to know what "keepin' it real" means, Back in the Days is the book of your dreams."
To prove that there is no fashion aspect that is too small for examination, Barbara Burman and Ariane Fennetaux have written The Pocket: A Hidden History of Women’s Lives: 1680 - 1900. Listed as one of the top art books of 2019 by the New York Times, The Pocket is a nuanced text that graphs the historiography of this mini storage space that belies its apparent simplicity. Utilizing a gendered lens, Burman and Fennetaux reveal how the existence and the evolution of the pocket is directly related to feminine freedoms, personal stories and autonomy, reminding readers that the smallest fashion accouterments can have the biggest stories.
Though she was the director of Elle España for eighteen years and Elle Decoración for seven, Susana M. Vidal might best be known for launching Ragazza while still in her twenties, making her the youngest director of any Elle sub-magazine in the world. Such credentials make her the ideal author for the book Mexican Style, a lush text that is touted as providing a "360-degree exploration of this mythical and colorful country [Mexico]”. She not only looks at the intersection of everything from chocolate to mezcal to the cinema, she also philosophizes over the impact of Dia de los Muertos and the ‘Frida effect’ on global fashion as well as personal style.
Appropriately stocking-sized, the Little Guides to Style, Volumes I and II are perfect for the reader who wants to keep the expert words and advice of Christian Louboutin, Gucci, Prada, and Yves Saint Laurent in their back pocket.
When examining the history of fashion, sidewalks are the most authentic of runways. Unbeholden to reviewers, critics and stylists, fashion flaunted along concrete is as idiosyncratic as it gets, with each person having the freedom to convey an anomalous, liberated message that is wholly their own. In the World Atlas of Street Fashion by Caroline Cox, extensive research and images reveal a globe where a sub-fashion such as the Harajuku styles are able to migrate to a city halfway across the world, finding new meaning in adopted cultures. Meanwhile, the punk aesthetic of one generation leapfrogs ahead to subsequent generations, espousing a new mode of anarchy. So, whether it’s the Cholo gangs of East Los Angeles or the Teddy Girls of working-class London, it is impossible to separate style from politics, though individuality is forever in the limelight regardless.
Edited by Elizabeth Way, the Associate Curator of Costume at The Museum at FIT, New York, Black Designers in American Fashion extols the artistry and business savvy of underreported black designers throughout history. Her coverage runs the gamut from enslaved dressmakers during the eighteenth century to designers who clothed the Civil Rights movement. Names like Ruby Bailey, (a flamboyant multi-hyphenated designer who was also known for being a maestro with beadwork), Wesley Tann, (designer of the 1960s who incorporated such fabrics as Indian sari silks), and Arthur George “Art” Smith, (member of Modernist Jeweler Movement whose life is chronicled more deeply in Art as Adornment: The Life and Works of Arthur George Smith) fill the pages and critical gaps in American history.
Fruits and Fresh Fruits make a cute couple. Authored by street photographer Shoichi Aoki and published by Phaidon, the books take a neon swan dive into Harajuku street culture, a sect defined by Gothic Lolitas and Manga-bright fashions. In Fruits, the Harajuku district of the early 1990s is captured in all its cartoonishly-cute couture glory. The book is named after the magazine, which was founded by Aoki, and showcased the essence of a culture that was a fusion of all things pop and all things youth. As Aoki writes in the forward of the first volume, Fruits is an amalgam of traditional “Japanese items such as kimono obi belts, kanzashi hair pins or geta sandals combined with Western clothes…even old second-hand kimonos were transformed into more modern-looking skirts.” In essence, the books, like the clothes, create a time capsule of brilliantly-colored nostalgia.
‘How to’ books rarely translate into scintillating fashion reads, making How to Read a Dress” A Guide to Changing Fashion from the 16th to the 21st Century by Lydia Edwards the rarest of delightful exceptions. Fashion has its own anatomy, with each century laying claim to the body in such a way that neophyte historians and expert couturiers can use this book to time travel and engage in hardcore research. The images are annotated, allowing readers to educate themselves on everything from sewing techniques to fashion trends to Récamier ruffles to corset stays.
Authors Shane White and Graham White seemingly asked numerous ‘why’ questions as they conducted research for Stylin': African-American Expressive Culture, from Its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit (Revised). Recognizing that style and fashion concoct creative hurricanes against social, political, geographic and economic circumstances, they treat clothes and trends like evidence in a grand scheme of inquiry. As African American culture is frequently stolen, usurped or gorged on by mass consumerism, they remind readers that it is important to remember why Zoot suits were styled as they were, why Black hairstyles have often been elaborate, and why color has been such a dominant form of expression in the world of Black Americans. Their research takes the plunge in colonized Africa before moving on to modern-day American, elaborating on freedoms and emancipations evident in every cuff and thread.
Marie Antoinette never stood a chance. Deposited like a dainty dessert onto a jaded French banquet table where the diners are all watching their figure, L'Autrichienne
- as they derisively called her - had to mold herself to fit their appetites. This cosmetic transformation naturally involved a total wardrobe makeover, one that is documented in Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution by Caroline Weber. Weber gives a modern tilt to the biography, helping readers recognize that everything the young queen did and wore - from her elaborate pouf hairstyles that once featured a model ship to celebrate the French navy to her various ballroom disguises - were part of a carefully constructed persona, something contemporary celebrities can understand all too well.
Fashion is not a democratic medium. For as long as clothes have been in existence, there have been rules and regulations that determine who can where what and when. Such rules are explored in Richard Thompson Ford’s Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History. The Stanford Law School professor looks at the art of creating spectacle, examining how nobles from Tudor England to Renaissance Florence employed various materials and adornments to communicate that they occupied the uppermost echelons of society. But the book does not confine itself to courts and European noble houses; Thompson looks at the suits Black and Latino men wore during the early to mid-twentieth century to proclaim their individuality and freedom from racist rules, while also examining the taboo nature of tattoos before they became absorbed by the teenage status quo. In essence, fashion has always existed; it's the rules that keep changing.
Fashion and cultural journalist Dana Thomas exposes the ugly side of fast fashion in Fashionopolis: Why What We Wear Matters. So popular that it was also released in a young reader's version, the book skewers fast-fashion juggernauts like Zara, H&M and Shein, exposing how such labels not only abuse laborers, but produce vast amounts of waste and pollution. Through her investigation, Thomas reminds readers of their responsibility as consumers, replaying the age-old adage that cheaper is not necessarily better, and that shoppers need to be hyper-aware of tawdry trends that gouge resources and toxify the planet. To keep eco-conscious shoppers from total despair, Thomas also spotlights companies that are doing the hard. work, utilizing fabric-recycling and sponsoring small, local markets to keep the beast of shallow consumerism from being fed.
Since the Oscar’s debuted in 1929, they have been a nexus of glitz and glamour, with fashion-savvy thespians ready to show up and show off. Beyond the Best Dressed: A Cultural History of the Most Glamorous, Radical, and Scandalous Oscar Fashion by Esther Zuckerman and illustrated by Montana Forbes delivers the Academy Award sophisticated with the scandalous, highlighting such mega-watt stars as Halle Berry in the plum and floral gown by Elie Saab, which she wore for her Monster's Ball win. Salacious moments are also savored, such as Cher's so-called 'revenge dress’ that she wore in 1986 when she presented an award in the wake of not winning for Mask. The dress was her sartorial statement, a rebuke to the Oscar pantheon that had sent out a booklet on appropriate attire for the evening. The book also remembers Hattie McDaniel who wore a turquoise gown the night she had to sit at a segregated table despite her win, and Sharon Stone’s white Gap button-up shirt that she donned for the 70th Academy Awards. Every outfit is memorable, for reasons that range from cheeky to chic.
The first word in the title of meXicana Fashions: Politics, Self-Adornment, and Identity Construction, edited by Norma E. Cantú and Aída Hurtado, immediately signals that this is a text where fashion is the tool of cultural examination. As the book immediately points out, the “term meXicana exalts the hybridity produced by la mezcla, the mixture, as essential to all that is Mexican-ness and references chicanismo to highlight resistance and creativity.” Identity is the book's zenith thesis, utilizing vignettes of mother and grandmother seamstresses to pinpoint the essence of family, while also including personal memoirs where bridesmaids recall the impact of fashion at weddings where a bride from the circum-Arctic Inuit people married a man from two separate Indigenous communities in New Mexico. Fashion is a compass and a catalogue, consistently helping the reader to revel in every iconoclast article of clothing.
Fashion historian Ingrid Mida makes an encore appearance on the list with The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-based Research in Fashion. This beautifully illustrated text provides in-depth details helping readers understand that every stitch and every cut of a garment has both a utilitarian and a symbolic purpose. Analyzing everything from an 1820s coat to a 2004 Kenzo jacket, the book examines the methodology behind the designs and the art behind seeming practical decisions that are as fabulous as they are pragmatic.
There are too many designer biographies for one list, but Hot Pink: The Life & Fashions of Elsa Schiaparelli by Susan Goldman Rubin ranks as it not only highlights Schiaparelli's panache for using hot pink, but as it also recognizes her as a designer who - much to Coco Chanel’s chagrin - championed many firsts. She was the first to craft “trompe l'oeil sweaters with collars and bows knitted in; wedge heels; shoulder bags; and even the concept of a runway show for presenting collections.” The book also investigates her gleeful collaborations with surrealist and dadaist eccentric masterminds such as of Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau, making this a read that covers all artistic fronts.
Author Dana Thomas has been an academic librarian since 2005, and it is that meticulousness that makes her the ideal author for such a book as Deluxe: How Luxury Lost It’s Luster. Rather than wax poetic about designers and socialites, she has delivered a witty overview of the demise of luxury as an elite concept, as an untouchable reality for many shoppers. Rather than applauding it’s availability to the everyday fashion denizen, she laments the fact that there is something vulgar in the creation of such concepts as brand awareness and advertising. With profits trumping quality, the lackluster world of designer fashions hasn't just come down a notch; it's fallen.
The title - Latin American Fashion Reader - might sound a bit pedantic and academic, but the book itself is anything but. The text not only reminds readers that the cultural wonderlands of Mexico and Central and South America have always been ripe with color and vivacity, but with luscious creativity that Western designers too often have stolen outright without acknowledging the source of said inspiration. In these pages, authors look at the influence of Latin American textiles while also acknowledging the specific influence of jewelry and designs worn by Mayan woman. There are also essays investigating the Copacabana Beach swimwear, perhaps best associated with Carmen Miranda, and the guerrilla chic styles native to the streets of Buenos Aires.
The title Dressed: A Philosophy of Clothes says it all. The book proposes that, while people might not hyper-analyze what they wear each day, clothing is still all about choices, and those choices reveal a tremendous amount about personal ideologies. When examining shoes, the author, Shahidha Bari, looks at Édouard Manet’s Olympia, appreciating how the delicate clogs at her feet would never fit her, rendering the mere physicality of standing up null and void, and her role in life to be one of supine pleasure. Madame X’s gown is also analyzed, as are the fur wraps in Peter Paul Ruben’s Helena Fourment in a Fur Wrap, keeping with the thesis that clothing is never arbitrary.