Currently Reading – Fashion: The Definitive Visual Guide

Since no one protested in my last post about more book reviews, here’s the latest one that’s occupying my time. I bought this book after seeing it on Instagram. I usually don’t buy survey of fashion history books because I already have quite a few, but this one seemed to have great illustrations, and it also included fashion all the way back to ancient times.

To be honest, this is not a curl up by the fire on a chilly day type of book. It’s huge and heavy and that makes it a bit hard to curl with. But it is just full of details and pictures, which makes this a great book to pick up when one has a few minutes to sit and absorb a few fashion history details.

The book is structured chronically, and  the authors point out details that characterize each garment. This concept is not new. and long-time fashion history students may remember the John Peacock Fashion Sourcebook from the 1990s. Still, it works to draw the reader’s attention to what is important. I do little mini-lessons on Instagram using this technique and have found that it’s quite popular.

Another nice feature of the book are the sidebars that give extra information.

The timeline format makes changes in fashion easy to see. I tried the effectiveness of this out on my husband, who after a few minutes study was able to correctly identify dresses from 1870 – 1895. He was quite proud of himself.

One of the things I really like about the book is the emphasis on sporting attire. There are several pages like this one, showing both men’s and women’s sportswear.

So much can be learned just from examining photos of women dressed for various activities, especially with the commentary.

One of my biggest concerns about books of this type is that through the 1960s or early 70s the clothes shown seem to be from an upper class wardrobe, but at the same time, they look like what people actually wore. But after the mid-seventies, there’s much more emphasis on designer fashion. While the outfits above from the 1970s are interesting, they are more high style than what actually was worn by most women.

Yes, these styles filtered down, and many women would have worn a version of the Mary Quant sweater suit above, but it’s just misleading as I think I’m right in assuming that people who were not there would see these dresses as what was typically worn.

A better example is that there are full pages of the work of Vivienne Westwood, Comme des Garcons, and Alexander McQueen, but no mention that I could find of designer jeans, and indeed, very few mentions of jeans at all.

One section I found interesting was this one on the influence of “vintage” on fashion. It wasn’t so much about wearing fashion, as it was about fashion having a “vintage” look. It’s no wonder that so many people don’t realize that vintage clothes are actually old!

The book has several nice timelines in the reference part of the book, along with a fairly comprehensive glossary.

I assume it has to do with the aesthetics of the look, but it bothered me that the photo credits are stuck in the back of the book, in tiny print. Many of them are from Getty or Corbus, and don’t have a lot of information about the image, including dates.

Still, this is an interesting overview of fashion history. It’s very readable, and can be taken in by small doses. The illustrations are excellent, and engaging. I think it would make a great introduction to fashion history for teens. I know my sixteen-year-old self would have loved it.


Filed under Currently Reading

6 responses to “Currently Reading – Fashion: The Definitive Visual Guide

  1. bpg94

    I don’t understand this at all. I keep leaving comments and can never connect. Betty Pollock Golden from Asheville Please let me know how to make a connection with folks who lived in Kenilworth and spoke of the Pollocks Shoe Store. You may give my email to a legitimate person looking for my family. I’m 94 – so Please Hurry!!@!!! Thanks you Betty



  2. jacq staubs

    Must see? I think you are correct -in the mid 70’s (my first job) there was a trickle down . However my recollection-designer and designer sportswear had already made their debut onto the racks of specialty stores. Anne Klein / Blassport etc. were instant wardrobe success staples for the “upper crust”Denim / Vanderbilt in76 skyrocketed as you know. I am surprised there is little mention of jeans. I would like to look thru this book. Thank you for this thoughtful review/post. Is “definitive ” dependant on who is defining?


    • There is a one sentence mention of Gloria Vanderbilt along with Calvin Klein as the first makers of “branded jeans”. I thought that was an odd way of saying it, as in the 70s we always said “designer jeans”. To me, Levi’s is a brand. They’ve been making jeans since the 19th century!


  3. Thanks for mentioning the clothes people wore — like jeans — as opposed to the clothes featured in fashion magazines/editorial articles/ or worn by the rich. Any history of 20th century fashion that does not include some variation of the Chanel suit or a shirtwaist dress is unreliable in my eyes. Finding a good history of the T-shirt’s evolution into outer wear is really difficult. (Originally, T-shirts that advertised a product were given away; when did people begin paying for the privilege of turning themselves into billboards?) How about baseball caps? and when it became common practice to keep them on indoors? At least 20th century clothing can still be researched in printed catalogs…. If anyone has the foresight to collect them. (Gee, I’m grouchy today!)


    • One of the things that drew me to collecting sportswear was that I could not compete with rich collectors and museums for the important designer stuff. When I first started acquiring sportswear 25 or so years ago, it was cheap and overlooked. I saw sportswear as an important part of the movement for equality. Today, there are more museums who are actively collecting sports clothing, in fact FIDM has organized an exhibition of their holdings. I hate the competition for pieces, but I’m glad sports clothing is getting the attention it deserves.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Dorling Kindersley is a UK publisher, was based in Covent Garden when I hung out there, and not prone to expansive research. Their focus is on the photograph collections they can license. This book is more interested in fashion history drawing from the museum collections around them, which would not have much that was more recent than Queen Vic.


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