Currently Reading: The Art of Dress by Jane Ashelford

I have a lot of respect for all the recent fashion historians who have published such richly illustrated, researched, and documented books. Most fashion history books one encounters these days really are heavily documented, and still manage to be readable by mere fashion enthusiasts like me.

The book I’m currently reading, The Art of Dress: Clothes and Society, 1500-1914 was published in 1996, but it too has all the features I look for in choosing a book on fashion history. Based on the collections of The British National Trust properties, Ashelford takes the reader on an in depth look at English fashion through the examination of paintings, extant garments, written records, ephemeria, and photographs.

The author begins in 1500, and because so few actual garments from the sixteenth century survive, most of the illustrations are from paintings in The National Trust collection. The details of each ensemble is carefully analyzed and explained to the reader. As you can see, both men’s and women’s clothing is addressed. Above is Richard Sackville, 1613, and Mary Curzon, circa 1610; both paintings are by William Larkin.

One of the earliest garments shown is this embroidered apron from between 1702 and 1714.

This circa 1745 painting of the Trevelyan family of Wallington, Northumberland, is a “conversation piece”, meaning that the people in the painting  were engaged  in conversation in an informal setting. These paintings are important because it makes it possible to see differences in dress worn by people of the same family or group of friends. The hound is a nice touch!

And as we move into the eighteenth century, there are more actual articles of clothing to be found.  Above is a detail of a mid century Spitalfields silk brocade court mantua, with silver gilt threads that showed to best advantage in the candlelight of the palace.

The author does an excellent job of detailing the drastic changes in fashion that occurred in the last part of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth. Fabrics were lighter, like the cotton muslin above, circa 1812.

Actual garments are shown along with period fashion plates. Here we get a better sense of how this 1820s silk dress would have been worn, with the hair style, jewelry, fan, and shoes.

By the 1850s and 1860s photographs became a valuable form of fashion documentation. Above we can see the fan shaped skirt of 1860s, and how the fullness of the skirt was gradually being pulled to the back.

In 1903 Lady Mary Curzon was painted wearing the famous Peacock Dress, made by the House of Worth of golden cloth with peacock feathers embroidered in gold and silver threads. Remarkably, this dress has survived, and can be seen at Kedleston Hall in a special climate controlled display case. To the left in the photo you get a glimpse of the fabric. What look like jewels in each feather are actually beetle wings.

One of my favorite things about The Art of Dress is that not only does Ashelford tell what people wore, but also how they obtained their clothing. This ends up being a good overview of the rise of ready-to-wear in Britain, and also of the emergence of the department store.  Above we see how mail order was also becoming an important part of shopping.

I do highly recommend The Art of Dress. It can be found on Amazon for a very reasonable price, and I imagine that most fashion school libraries have a copy.  At 303 pages, it can make for a lot of cozy wintertime reading, or if you are in the Southern Hemisphere, a lot of lazy summertime reading.


Filed under Currently Reading

2 responses to “Currently Reading: The Art of Dress by Jane Ashelford

  1. We used to have a stack of books something like that in Theater Arts in college. It would help us to study the era and the costumes for whatever period piece we were doing.


  2. Well, you just sold a copy of this book, plus a copy of her book “Care of Clothes”. And when I’m done reading, it will get donated to the book pile at the high school costume shop. Yes, they have a costume shop, with better machines than the sewing/”personal development” classroom. Visualize eye roll here.


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