Growing up with a fashionable mother who designed and made most of her own clothing (and ours), I had no choice but to adopt a love of textiles, clothing design and sewing from an early age. My alter-ego is a fashion designer, I am quite sure. So I collect coffee table books about sewing and fashion, embellish and restyle vintage clothing, still read Vogue magazine, and think a vacation should always include a leisurely visit to a unique fabric store or exhibit of a famous designer’s clothes at a museum. When I visited Britex Fabrics in San Francisco a couple years ago, I knew I was close to heaven!
Advanced Style, by Ari Seth Cohen
If there is one book that always gives me delight when I look at it, it is this one; incredible photos of older (at least mid-60’s and as old as 103!) women who have original style. Inspired by his own grandmother’s sense of fashion, Cohen set about photographing and interviewing women in New York and published the book in 2012. It quickly became not only a best seller, but a whole “enterprise”, with related documentaries, a blog, and a second volume (just published) titled Advanced Style: Older and Wiser. The best take-away here is that what comes through is the self-confidence with which these women wear their unique clothing, accessories and make-up. Why should I worry about my sagging neck or failing upper arm muscles when I have these imaginative fashionistas to inspire me?
An even more charming book, by the now-famous Grace Coddington (of The September Issue documentary fame). She started work as a fashion model in England in the 1960’s, then as a stylist for British Vogue before leaping to America in the 1980’s, and her story is not that unexpected in some ways (except that she works closely and successfully with the infamous Vogue editor Anna Wintour (of The Devil Wears Prada fame) and has for many years. She is the designer and creative genius behind most of Vogue Magazine’s success over the past 30 years, and I have to believe one of the most delightful and talented sketch artists around. The book’s design, heft, generous photographs and especially the sketches on nearly every page make it a unique work of art. And any fashion guru who can include several chapters about her cats and still hold my interest is well worth reading about! A yummy delight.
One Hundred Dresses, by Eleanor Estes
I had never read this tender book, written in 1944, which was a Newberry Award Honor Book (for juvenile fiction). The story, about the exclusion of a young girl raised in poverty in a small town, shows the impact on the lives of all children when class differences arise and are accentuated. Young Wanda is constantly teased by her classmates for wearing the same faded blue denim dress each day, and to defend herself tells them she has “one hundred dresses, all lined up” in her closet. This leads to even more teasing and name-calling. Then an art contest at school confirms that Wanda did indeed have a hundred dresses–all her own designs illustrated and colored on paper. She won the school illustration contest, and her former tormentors were ashamed, but by that time it was too late: her father had moved the family to a bigger city, where he hoped they would be more accepted. Subtly illustrated by Louis Slobodkin, a Caldecott Medal Winner for 1943, a memorable story for children and adults alike.
The Language of Clothes, by Alison Lurie
Over 30 years ago, one of my favorite novelists of that time period (Foreign Affairs; The War Between the Tates) surprised readers by writing this informal history of fashion. She particularly focused on how politics, class, and sexual mores influence fashion trends. One particular chapter that fascinated me was on hair styles, beards, and hats, in which she cleverly demonstrates the correlation between length and style of facial hair with artistic and creative self-expression. In another, she analyzes color and patterns (grey, for example, symbolizing modesty or mystery, and sometimes both). The book is well-illustrated, although in black and white, and while it does not cover contemporary fashion, it does cover a great deal of the history of fashion in a witty, easy to read style. I enjoyed reading it again even more now than I did 25 years ago!
Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, by Elizabeth Cline
This is a “trend” I have been following for years–whenever I go to Macy’s or Target or the Gap (which is blessedly not too often), I see racks and racks of flimsy, mostly garish, unimaginative cheap clothes. When I see acquaintances and family members buying these clothes, many of which are never worn, I wonder how we got to this place. Surely it is not all about free trade, but much of it is. I wish I could force everyone who buys clothes to read this book, and I hope a few of you will. When it comes to clothing nowadays, I either buy from a consignment store, make my own, or purchase new with the plan to pay more now, but make it last longer. Sounds suspiciously like my father’s “you get what you pay for”. To that I would add: the cheaper the item, the more likely it was made on the backs of child labor, underpaid workers, and in unsafe working conditions in another country.
Women in Clothes, by Heti, Julavits, and Shapton (editors)
Here is a book I would rather label a catalog; over 600 women weigh in on clothes and fashion with photographs, interviews, short essays and plenty of humor. I would say it is beyond eclectic, and though it was published in 2014, it is not that easy to find. Still, it is worth it for entries such as “the ring cycle” where 15 women photograph their hands and talk about their rings, or musings from “an older woman going through her closet”. Particularly unexpected and familiar is a dialog between two friends (Helen King and Sheila Heti) who go bra shopping together! Pick almost any page, and find amusement, creative ideas, poignant memories, hilarious photographs, historical reminiscences, and more aspects about clothing and dress than I have ever seen in one place. A book to own, for sure!