Top five: Fashion History

Contributed by Niamh Cullen

‘Nothing happened, except that we all dressed up’. So John Lennon ironically dismissed the social and cultural revolution that was 1960s London, in a 1970 interview for Rolling Stone magazine. If the ‘swinging sixties’ in London can be encapsulated by the image of the miniskirt, it doesn’t mean that the cultural revolution that took place during than decade was a superficial one, but that clothes came, in a very real way, to embody the changes that were taking place in identity, gender relations, youth culture, consumer culture and much more. Until recent years, fashion or dress history was mostly seen as a branch of art history, with the focus being primarily on the aesthetic qualities of clothing – usually the sumptuous dress of royalty and the upper classes. It is only in the last couple of decades that it has begun to be seen as an integral part of social and cultural history, with studies examining what ordinary people wore, and what their clothes said about their lives and the society they lived in, rather than just looking at courtly dress, or the fashion industry. Here are Niamh’s top five books for Fashion history:
1 . Gilles Lipovetsky, The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy

A French philosophy professor, Lipovetsky is regarded in some ways as the heir to Roland Barthes. Both are postmodernists and have written about fashion, but the similarities stop there. Lipovetsky has inherited none of Barthes’ disdain for the so-called superficiality of the fashion industry. Instead, he recognises the value of fashion as a way of expressing individual identity in modern, democratic society and, with this premise in mind, traces the development of the fashion industry in France from the eighteenth to twentieth century.

2 . Philippe Perrot, Fashioning the Bourgeoisie. A History of Clothing in the Nineteenth Century.

Perrot’s lively, funny and engaging account deals with every possible aspect of middle class dress in nineteenth century France, from shopping for clothes – from a travelling second hand clothes dealer or market, if you didn’t have much money and needed to look the part – to the many different layers that made up ‘invisible clothing’ or underwear for men and women. Perrot illustrates how clothes tell us a great deal about a society tightly governed by rules regarding appearance, and in continual anxiety about status.

3 . Christopher Breward, Fashioning London. Clothing and the Modern Metropolis
Breward is head of research at the Victoria and Albert Museum and an expert on British fashion. Fashioning London shows how the life and identity of a city can be bound up in the dress of its inhabitants. The book is divided into a series of ‘moments’ in London’s fashion history, each focusing on a different time period and neighbourhood in the city. Each ‘moment’ focuses on a character, from the eighteenth century dandy to the suburban housewife of inter-war London, and finally the fashion conscious student combing the stalls of Camden market, illustrating wonderfully the continued dialogue between the city, its people and their fashions.

4 . Valerie Steele, Fashion, Italian style

Dubbed ‘fashion professor’ by Forbes magazine, Steele is possibly one of the most glamorous living historians. Founder and editor of the journal Fashion Theory, she has written extensively on nineteenth and twentieth century fashion. This book is the most traditional ‘fashion history’ of the five I’ve chosen. Beautifully illustrated, it gives an excellent account of the development of Italian fashion, from the Roman empire to the present day, but focussing in particular on the post-war period. It was in the 1950s that America ‘discovered’ Italian fashion, and Italy saw the development of a national fashion industry and an internationally recognisable ‘Italian style’.

5 . Christian Dior, The Little Dictionary of Fashion. A Guide to Dress Sense for Every Woman
My final choice is not a history book, but a fashion artefact written by the one of the driving personalities of post-war French fashion. It was Dior, of course, who created the ‘New Look’ in 1947, when he boldly rebelled against war time austerity, reintroducing luxury and romanticism to women’s dress. Published in 1954, the Dictionary tells the fashionable woman everything she needs to know about how to create her own style. Readers learn how to choose the right afternoon frock, how to tie a scarf and that too-high heels are in very bad taste. Curiousities aside, this pocket sized book gives us an entertaining insight into the social and cultural milieu of the well to do woman of the 1950s.

Niamh Cullen is an IRCHSS postdoctoral fellow at the School of History and Archives, UCD. She specialises in modern Italian history and her current research project focuses on the relationship between dress, popular culture and social change in 1950s and 60s Italy.

Niamh is also the editor of The Little Review, a new arts and culture blog, based in Dublin but with a European focus.

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3 Responses to “Top five: Fashion History”

  1. Top five: Fashion History (via Pue’s Occurrences) | Uncovered History Says:

    […] Contributed by Niamh Cullen ‘Nothing happened, except that we all dressed up’. So John Lennon ironically dismissed the social and cultural revolution that was 1960s London, in a 1970 interview for Rolling Stone magazine. If the ‘swinging sixties’ in London can be encapsulated by the image of the miniskirt, it doesn’t mean that the cultural revolution that took place during than decade was a superficial one, but that clothes came, in a very real w … Read More […]

  2. Póló Says:

    I understood that skirt/dress lines went up and down in response to the economic situation (or conjuncture as the French would call it)🙂

  3. Hermione Says:

    Great article, Niamh – I loved it!

    Also, I may need to borrow a book or two from you in the future, if I may, please😉

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