Today is a really great time to be interested in fashion history and how people dressed in the past. When I first “discovered” fashion history, the reading choices were quite limited. What was available before the 1990s was usually in the form of dry chronological fashion studies or fashion encyclopedias.
Contrast that with the present when there are almost too many choices. Fashion history, it seems, sells, as not just museums, but also book publishers have discovered. Unfortunately, not all the fashion books published in the past twenty-five years are good. Because of this I’ve gotten pretty particular about which books get added to my library.
One thing I look for when deciding whether to order a new book, is the author and his or her credentials. Not that I’m a fashion intellectual snob; my own degree is, after all in Early American history. But I’ve found that the very best books are written by someone who is either a professional in fashion studies, or has considerable experience in studying historic fashion. There are exceptions of course.
Another thing I look for is a new approach. I don’t need another basic survey of fashion history, nor do I need another book on “vintage fashion.” I’m always looking for a new way of looking at garments, and on this level, How to Read a Dress by Lydia Edwards, really delivers. Technically, this book might be considered a survey of fashion history, but it is the author’s use of photos of garments that sets this book apart.
Edwards starts her survey in 1550 and ends in 1970. It is a chronological study, which helps one to see the subtle, and not so subtle changes that occurred in fashion. Most importantly, Edwards points out what is important in each garment.
For me, this book was especially helpful in showing me the changes made between 1790 and 1918. I have a pretty good grasp of twentieth century fashion, but I’ll be the first to admit I need to learn more about fashion prior to WWI.
Another plus in this book is the use of garments from museums that are not commonly seen. Instead of relying solely on garments from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Victoria and Albert, Edwards uses images from museums in Australia, Canada, Britain, and the USA. It’s a very refreshing change from the same couture garments that are pictured over and over in publications and on websites.
It serves to remind us there are fashion treasures all over the world. I was especially pleased to see garments from the collection of the North Carolina Museum of History in the book. I’ve been in their collection rooms, and I know what a great and extensive collection is there, and yet, these clothes are rarely seen.
I’m hoping this book does well, and that a second edition is published. As much as I love the book, there were several photos of black garments that were incredibly hard to read. There are also a few editing errors – repeated lines, seemingly mislabeled photos, and a contradiction or two of place of creation. But I’m nit-picking. This is a beautiful, well written book. The photos are a joy to study, and I finished it wishing it were twice as long.