Books on Fashion

Fashion. It’s everywhere isn’t it? On the runways, in the magazines and newspapers, on the television, in the shops and out there in the clubs, malls, high streets and beaches. But have you never wondered why such a ubiquitous industry never seems to be the subject of serious research and study? I don’t mean just articles on what types of clothes are the best for your particular body shape; I mean an in-depth look or study into how the industry works? This seems odd given that there are hundreds of books and media material about other industries, from renewable energy to becoming a chef.
But there are some books out there that have done more than just scratch the surface of a multi-billion global industry that surely touches all our lives in some way. One of the oldest is called “The Fashion System” by Frenchman Roland Barthes, published during the height of the swinging sixties and flower-power in 1967. He used the language of fashion- mostly drawn from fashion magazines (no internet or World Wide Web then!) as a case study to analyse a system of signs, not linguistically based. It was not a great sensation- it was mixed with patchy reviews, some reviewers thought the work and its subject frivolous while others recognised his attempt at engagement with the everyday and what would now be called “the street scene”. At its heart was his theory that fashion is a complex code determined by very many social cues, and it produces not just clothing or an image of women, but an abstract notion of ‘fashion’ itself. Be warned though, it’s a little dated- and that’s not surprising for a book written nearly five decades ago.
A much more interesting read is “Fetish: Fashion, Sex & Power” by Valerie Steele. As you may guess by the title, this book explores the S&M trend that now and then comes up strong on the runways with lace and leather corsets from Balmain and Pucci and considersa deeper psychological significance being at play here. It looks at subcultures and their origins and even mentions my favourite actress Diana Rigg (currently in Game of Thrones) when she dressed in a leather cat suit as Emma peel in the 1960s’ hit TV show “The Avengers”. The book uses interviews, case studies, and anecdotes, and traces a shift in attitudes towards sexuality to the extent that even modest middle-aged women will consider leather studded stilettos and outfits that would in the past be declared racy or super-sexy.
Colin McDowell’s “The Literary Companion to Fashion” is an entertaining and well-written journey that explores the role of dress in popular literature. As one of the world’s foremost fashion historians, you would expect detail and depth. McDowell’s source materials span over 400 years and includes snippets of literary classic books from Ovid, Malcolm X, Mary Wollstonecraft, Virginia Woolf, Jean Genet, and Bret Easton Ellis to name a few. McDowell draws out the roles that fashion played at the times the works were written, particularly in terms of power and maintaining or developing social class hierarchies.
Finally “Adorned in Dreams:Fashion & Modernity” by Elizabeth Wilson in which she explores and analyses the use of fashion as a subversive statement. For example think flower-power fashion and anti-war/peace movements in the 1960s, or the punk movement which combined music, fashion and attitude. The section on David Beckham and the evolution of the era of the metrosexual is particularly insightful. Well worth a read- but we need more in-depth books on the fashion industry please!

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