Currently Reading: How to Read a Dress by Lydia Edwards

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.


Filed under Currently Reading

19 responses to “Currently Reading: How to Read a Dress by Lydia Edwards

  1. So frustrating, not available from my public or university library systems! (yet?)


    • The book has only been out for about a month, so it may be a while before it shows up in libraries.


      • It came in to the college library consortium and I have it on my desk. What a fascinating book! I just wish the text (especially the text describing individual parts of the clothes) was a larger size font. It’s a popular book as there is a long wait list for it, but as faculty my husband got first dibs!


  2. Carla

    “knit-picking”? is that a Freudian “slip” ??? 🙂


    • No I did that intentionally, as I hate the word “nit”!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ha! I was curious about your use of “knit”-pick too, especially in that you called yourself one 🙂 / Looking forward to finding this book!
        I am curious, with the repeated lines, poor photos etc, did you communicate these to the author/publisher? I only wonder because if they missed it this first time ’round, they may not think anything is wrong with the book if they happen to print it again-!


        • Any public school teacher has a real aversion to the thought of nits!

          No, I haven’t been in touch with the publisher, but you do have a very good point. I suspect the author can point out every error though!


    • When I do this unintentionally, I call it a “vintage typo.” I’ll type “seams to me” or “waisting time.” I guess when you type a particular series of letters enough times, it becomes automatic, even when it’s wrong!


  3. It’s on my list–due at my library soon.


  4. And under the heading of Currently Watching… I wondered if you had caught The Dressmaker with Kate Winslett. I think it’s on Netflix or was it Amazon? I thoroughly enjoyed it and thought you might. Quite absurd but the costumes were pretty great,


  5. Susan

    Thank you for pointing other fanatics to a good resource and showing us some photos in the book. My lifetime knowledge of costume and dress has all come from museum exhibits so far. A note of nit picking: ‘Knit-picking’ is really only for knitting, but ‘nit picking’ is for everyone.


  6. Sue A.

    I really enjoy your book recommendations, especially since some are books I might not be aware of without your reference. Please continue to include your reading choices on your blog!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Adding this one to my wish list, Lizzie. Looks like a fascinating and informative read!


  8. John Thomas

    I have seen an exhibition of the vintage clothing you mentioned was at the The North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh, NC. Very impressive collection!

    John Thomas


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