A lesson on how fashion affected human history

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

—“Fashion: The Definitive History of Costume and Style,” Consultant Editor Susan Brown with the Smithsonian Institution; DK Publishing, New York (480 pages, $50.00)


It’s always fun to find a book that is one-stop holiday shopping for both newcomer and expert, especially when the book is full of history and photographs.

Susan Brown, a consultant with the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, edited the coffee-table book “Fashion: The Definitive History of Costume and Style.” For anyone with a casual interest in clothing, a browse through its 480 pages will give a lesson how fashion affected human history.

For experts, it can be used as a reference book. For example, do you remember who Biba was? “Less a label, more a way of life, the influential Biba brand of the 1960s and ‘70s blazed a trail for young, hip fashion and the affordable boutique.”

Full pages are devoted to fashion icons. Alexander McQueen. Coco Chanel. Elizabeth I of England. Eleanor of Aquitaine. Nefertiti. All of these people were influential whether royalty or creators of fashion for royalty. Their styles were followed by millions.

“Fashion” has ten sections, each beginning with a useful timeline.

Prehistory starts with the first clothing, a leather animal hide, and ends with Byzantinium. The “Scythian rider on horseback … from a 5th-4th century BCE carpet found in Siberia” has curved moustaches like evil villains in an old West television program. A pottery warrior from China, circa 210 BCE wears a scarf – “one of the earliest examples of men’s neckware.”

“Downton Abbey” fans will enjoy the spread of “1900-1914 Evening and Tea gowns” – all of which would fit in on the show.

One special treat within each section is an example of clothing as done by a modern reconstruction dressmaker. For example, a two page spread shows an 1891 Reception Dress.” The outfit has a lace jabot, damask underdress, golden silk train, a long velvet coat with gathered tucked sleeves and a tightly laced corset binding in a very narrow waist. It looks stunningly uncomfortable.

Men are not ignored. There are many examples of menswear through the ages: Roman togas, stuffed doublets with tight hose and codpieces, the leather jackets and jeans of 1960s rebels and examples of current designer Tom Ford – better known at the moment as the man who dressed the latest “James Bond” (Daniel Craig,) in “Skyfall.”

What is lacking in “Fashion” is any culture other than Western. There are references to Arabic styles, the Japanese influence of the late 1800s, but in general this vast book covers only Western culture.

Trends become clear as you read through history. The lower classes usually had more comfortable clothing. Women’s legs were covered, uncovered, covered – most of the time they were hidden. Big shouldered jackets didn’t start with 1980s “Dynasty”: in 1533 Holbein the Young painted a French ambassador whose “round puffed sleeves create massive shoulders.” Egypt has been rediscovered by Western fashion several times over the centuries, most notably by fashionistas in the early 1800s, and the “Egyptomania” that “gripped fashion design of the 1930s.” Likewise with Greece where classic draped gowns have reappeared on celebrity red carpets.

Everything old is new again


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