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Holiday Gift Guide (Part II): Books for Budding Fashionistas

By Erin Moonyeen Haley

“Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life.” So said Bill Cunningham, cultural historian, New York Times fashion columnist, milliner, and a man considered by fashion’s elite to be the “OG street photographer.

His quote can perhaps be best applied to the budding fashionistas of the world, the youth for whom rules, regulations and self-censorship do not yet apply. Their innate optimism and experimentation is a flagrant buttress against societal ‘do’s and don’ts’, and they dwell in a fashion utopia that adults can typically only recreate with Cunningham’s proverbial armor.

In the spirit of youthful joie de vivre and stylish insouciance, there are a plethora of picture books that not only tell the story of iconic designers and lesser-known - but equally fabulous - fashion mavens, but that also channel the fearlessness that fashion needs if it is to thrive and surprise.

Maria Isabel Sánchez Vergara grew up in the 1970s in Barcelona with dreams of becoming a poet. After years in advertising, she invested her life savings into what was the beginning of her Little People, Big Dreams franchise. Now, with a coterie of illustrators, her stories of such luminaries as Frida Kahlo and Ella Fitzgerald have sold over 7.5 million copies worldwide. Among the fashion heavyweights and madcaps that the series covers, Iris Apfel, Josephine Baker, Vivienne Westwood, RuPaul and Coco Chanel have all made the list. While the individual biographies illustrate their respective stories, the collective moral is that - to make an impact as an artist and cultural zeitgeist - eccentricities and intuition are to be followed and celebrated.

Ann Lowe’s lifestory is a reminder that fashion can be an apparatus in the Civil RIghts Movement. The granddaughter of a former enslaved dressmaker, Lowe’s artistry launched her into society after she parlayed a high-profile job for the governor's wife in her native Alabama into working for other elites with connections who recognized her priceless skill. Relocating to New York City, she faced segregation and racism, but remained known for her craftsmanship, which included techniques of using “gathered tulle and canvas to hold out hems, lace seam bindings, hand sewn organza facings, and weights to promote proper hang.”

In 1953, she designed the gowns for the entire bridal party of Jacqueline Bouvier upon her wedding to senator John F. Kennedy, a job Lowe was able to pull off even after a flood in her studio destroyed her work a scant ten days before the wedding. This story and others are highlighted in not one but two picture books: Fancy Party Gowns: Designer Ann Cole Lowe by Deborah Blumenthal and illustrated by Laura Freeman, and Only the Best by Kate Messner, and co-authored by Margaret Powell and illustrated by Erin Robinson. The books explore the travesty of Lowe never receiving credit for Bouvier’s dress while also touting her pure artistry that has transcended the ages.

One reason that Diana Vreeland’s reputation was so magnificent and enduring was that, in the words of Vanity Fair, “she always trafficked in the elusive and insubstantial.” The pink and red picture book Violet Velvet Mittens with Everything by Deborah Blumenthal and illustrated by Rachel Katstaller, captures her abstract and sometimes kooky style, chronicling Vreeland’s girlhood love of dance to the cultivation of a larger-than-life personality that made her a zany presence everywhere from the runway to the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Fashion and wonder naturally coexist, and nowhere is that organic relationship so evident as in Julian Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love. In the eclectic urban jungle of New York City, young Julian sees costumed mermaids on the subway. Mesmerized, he continues to daydream of the costumes, reflecting on the razzle-dazzle of the accouterments, of the fit of the skirts and of the bright colors of their hair. This prompts his abuela to help him create his own mermaid costume, complete with a lemon-yellow tail and leaves from a potted fern to use as a headpiece, all of which prove that fashion is a love language between both family members and perfect strangers.

It’s the nursery rhyme book for the parent who savors their September issues of Vogue and has the date of next year’s Met Gala already saved on their phone. Amy Allen’s This Little Piggy Went to Prada: Nursery Rhymes for the Blahnik Brigade has the carefree whimsy of Shel Silverstein, but with the fashionable patina of the latest Harper’s Bazaar.

The illustrations by Eun-Kyung Kung have a watercolor vivacity, complementing the rhymes that take readers through the quasi-Wonderland journey of fashion on full display.

Bloom: A Story of Fashion Designer Elsa Schiaparelli is an ode to the colorful and quirky imagination of the very designer who created the couleur de la décennie of the late ’30s and early ’40s, known as Shocking Pink. Her name was Elsa Schiaparelli, and Bloom chronicles her life from her lackluster childhood in Rome to her self-made, vibrant existence in Paris, where her friendships with Surrealists and Dadaists steered her fashion ideology into more abstract theaters of expression. Using the taffy-pinks and bubblegum-magentas that Schiaparelli was known for, the book luxuriates in the outlandish designs that Schiaparelli invented, such as hats in the shape of shoes, gloves speared with fingernails and dresses covered in lobsters. With two covers to choose from, the book is a dual-homage to the floral, the fabulous and the fuschia.

Mary Had a Little Glam by Tammi Sauer and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton demonstrates that the self-empowering abilities of fashion can never start too young. Mary not only rocks her idiosyncratic style with aplomb, but she is also a stylist to her classmates, ensuring that they are dressed prêt-à-porter and full of glam, no matter if it's recess, class or the end of the day when the doors are thrown wide open. Available in both board book and picture book format, the book caters to a variety of ages.

In a world striving for body positivity, A Perfect Fit: How Lena "Lane" Bryant Changed the Shape of Fashion by Mara Rockliff and illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal, is the ideal gift for the mindful and the self-emancipating. This rags-to-riches immigration story tells the tale of the origins and evolution of the Lane Bryant clothing line. When Lane came to this country from Lithuania, she was already a skilled seamstress who required neither measuring tape nor a pattern to create her looks. When a client came to her with what was considered a challenge - design and create a dress that did not conform to size standards of the day - she embraced the challenge, and an entire fashion label was launched, revolutionizing fashion and beauty acceptance.

Would fashion even be fashion without its titular icons? Without the Marilyn Monroes, the Audrey Hepburns, the Chers and the Grace Joneses of the world acting as stylish totems the rest of humanity can look up to, (and even pray to), would fashion leave such an indelible imprint? Bad Girls of Fashion not only argues that - without icons - fashion would be a flatlined, lifeless story, but it insists that, without the proverbial 'bad' girls - the mavericks and the rebels - the business of fashion would be a blasé art, forever in search of divine and devilish inspiration. The lavishly colored illustrations chart the lives of some of fashion’s favorite bad girls, while also lampooning the restrictions society has tried to impress upon women, ultimately praising how the mutineers have employed style to seize and exercise power.

Donald Robertson's outrageous giraffe likes to travel. In addition to Mitford at the Hollywood Zoo, there is Mitford at the Fashion Zoo. Like all good fashion stories, this one starts with a fashion emergency, once in which our giraffe heroine has to save Rhinoana, a superstar singer and cover model, whose cotton candy dress has disintegrated like...well...cotton candy. Mitford's help doesn't stop there: Meryl Sheep is also in an SOS fashion situation for an upcoming red carpet event while the ever-troublesome Shark Whaleberg is in need of Mitford's fashionista TLC. In the end, it's not just a story about fashion makeovers; it's also about helping friends in need.

The synopsis might have the most perfect opening sentence: “Once upon a time (but not that long ago), girls only wore dresses. And only boys wore pants.” Mary Wears What She Wants is a rare picture book in that it reminds readers that the art of dress often skews political. Written and illustrated by Keith Negley, (award-winning creator of My Dad Used to Be So Cool and Tough Guys Have Feelings Too), the book follows in the tradition of its predecessors, reminding readers that the status quo should have no bearing on modern fashion. The narrative centers on the true story of Mary Edwards Walker, a 19th-century doctor who was arrested numerous times because of her determination to wear pants. This unflinching heroine not only stands up to society and family, she sets the tone for future feminist movements where clothing - be it powersuits or miniskirts - changes the dynamics of gender equality.

In the tone of its predecessor, Bad Girls Throughout History!, illustrator and author Ann Shen delivers another tongue-in-cheek picture book ideal for adults or long as they’ve got a passion for fashion. The title - Nevertheless, She Wore It: 50 Iconic Fashion Moments - says it all. The word ‘nevertheless’ is an acknowledgment that safer fashion choices are always available, but ultimately forgettable, while ‘iconic’ promises readers that they’ll be reading about everything from singer Selena’s rhinestone-studded bustiers to Madonna’s cone bra. Every item documented might be dismissed as a splash of rebellion, but Shen's thesis successfully argues that nothing is accidental, and that clothing is about asserting oneself, elbowing the patriarchy in the jugular while dancing and smiling and shimmying into Herstory.

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