Holiday Gift Guide (Part I): 35 Books for the Fashion Lover on the List

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