You might have guessed that I’m a huge lover of books. I have a fashion library of over 200 books, and I’m constantly looking for more. The truth is that I would have even more than 200, but unless I find a book to be useful to me, or of particular interest, I will pass it on to someone who might need it. And I’ve even had a few that were so bad that I recycled them rather than donated.
So, how do you know how to invest in books on fashion history? A lot of the answer depends on what your needs are, and what direction you are headed with learning about fashion.
1. If you are a beginning vintage fashion collector, or if you have just discovered old clothing and you want to learn more, you should start with a collector’s book. By that I mean a book that is geared toward buying and wearing vintage clothes, rather than a book on the history of fashion. This type of book has suggestions on where to find vintage clothing and usually comes with a concise overview of fashion history. When I first started buying vintage I purchased every book of this type that I could find, and I learned a lot from them. But the truth is, most of them say pretty much the same things, so start with one and then if you want more, go to the library and see what they have to offer.
The only book of this sort that I still own is the one pictured above, Tracy Tolkien’s Dressing Up Vintage. It’s a good beginner’s book. Others I can recommend are Melody Fortier’s Little Guide to Shopping Vintage and Christa Weil’s Secondhand Chic. Weil has also written It’s Vintage, Darling, but it is available only in the UK.
2. Get a good fashion encyclopedia. Don’t think World Book; these are more like dictionaries, but contain fashion terms, information about fashion eras and small biographies of designers. They are very useful for a quick look-up of fashion terms, and they can be surprisingly full of details.
Just be careful. Know who the author or editor is before buying. I say this because the two books above are really the same (or nearly the same) book, written by the same person. And you also need to make sure the the person writing the encyclopedia you want has good fashion credentials.
3. Get a good history over-view. No one book is going to have it all, but a good place to start is with a chronological history. If you are in the US, then New York Fashion is really a must have if you want to learn how the fashion business in the US developed. If you are not in the US, then your choice might be completely different. Call your local fashion college and ask what book they use to teach fashion history.
An old standard in this area is James Laver’s Costume & Fashion, though it has fallen out of favor in recent years. A new edition is expected this summer, with an up-date by Amy de la Haye.
4. Narrow your focus. There are so many books on fashion history that I really don’t think it is possible to have and read them all, and truthfully, would that even be to your benefit? My clothing collection is based on sportswear, and so I’m much more likely to buy a book on sports clothing than on ball gowns. I might not be interested in a book on antique Chinese silks, but I’ll spend money for a book on Harris Tweed.
5. Look to the past. Some of the best information about fashion in the 1940s comes from books written during the 1940s. Find out who the fashion experts of the past were and scour ebay and etsy for their work. If you are interested in clothing details from a particular era, then look for a sewing guide written during that time period.
6. Invest in books that focus on your favorite designers. Every time there is a blockbuster exhibition featuring a designer, there is a blockbuster book to match. These are usually full of photos and details about that designer’s work. The downside is that they are expensive. Buy books that are about the designers you love best.
7. It’s not just about the frocks. Fashion includes many things, from the head to the toes. Often accessories are not talked about much in regular fashion history books, so be sure to seek out a few books to fill in the gaps. Jonathan Walford’s The Seductive Shoe is, in my opinion, the best book on the history of the shoe that you’ll find. For an excellent book on hats, get Susan Langley’s Vintage Hats and Bonnets, 1770-1970.
8. Consider a few “readers.” Remember how when you were in elementary school, you had a reader in which there were all kinds of stories, all different, but based on a common theme? Well, the reader for fashion lover exists. These make for good bedtime reading.
9. Allow a little beauty for beauty’s sake into your collection. Fashion: A History from the 18th to the 20th Century is not, as the title might suggest, a comprehensive look at the history of fashion. It is instead a look inside of the stunning collection the the Kyoto Costume Institute. It is 700 pages of fashion heaven!
10. If you are a museum lover and you are in the US, then you must have Clothing and Textile Collections in the United States. It is a state-by-state listing of museums and institutions that have clothing collections that are open to the public. And while some states are covered better than others, I’ve found it to be indispensable in trip planning.
I’ve written reviews on some of these books and on others at my website, Fuzzylizzie.com. And feel free to share your own fashion book favorites in the comments.