Looking through my library, I was surprised to realize how many of my favorite books are actually exhibition catalogs. If I see an exhibition that I love, I always buy the catalog if there is one, but seeing the show is not absolutely necessary when it comes to enjoying the catalog. A note: exhibition catalogs are not for buying; they are for learning more about what is on display.
French Fashion: Women & the First World War was shown at the Bard Graduate Center in New York last fall. Unfortunately I was not about to attend, but from all the stunning photographs of the exhibition on Instagram, I knew I need to have the accompanying book.
Another great thing about exhibition catalogs is that the curators of the show are usually the writers of the book. From reading a really good exhibition catalog you can see just how much work and research goes into a show that is on view for only a few months. In this way the research keeps on giving to people like me.
I usually leave what I don’t like about a book to the end of a review, but in this case I’m just going to get it out of the way. I hate the way this book is designed. The cover is interesting, but not compelling. The more I look at it, the more I dislike it. But as they say, don’t judge a book by its cover.
My big problem with the design is in how the print is applied to the page. There’s a reason man invented the paragraph. The eye has to rest even when reading the most interesting text. I found the oldly spaced breaks to be distracting. And look at how the text runs all the way to the margins. There’s a reason man invented margins. Without them the eye tends to run right off the page.
It took a while, but I did finally get used to the format of the text. There are nice cross-references, and the notes are well-placed. But another quirk of the book is how the illustrations were clustered together instead of being interspersed with the text. Okay, I get that I’m being picky, but the older my eyes get, the more I appreciate easy to read text. I did appreciate the size and dark color of the print.
Now that’s out of the way I can concentrate on what makes this book so good. As I mentioned earlier, it’s the research and writing of catalogs that make them such great resources. The writers and curators were Maude Bass-Krueger and Sophie Kurkdjan, with a few of the essays being written by other scholars. There were subjects ranging from the role of gender, to the strikes of the Midinettes for better pay, to fashion counterfeiting. All were interesting reading. Who knew that before and during the war Germans were printing fake Parisian fashion magazines and then selling them back to French consumers?
The illustration are a real asset to this book – a combination of period fashion illustrations, cartoons, newspaper articles, archival photographs, and photos of garments used in the exhibition. Most illustrations are the size of the page, so you get a really good look. Here we see how the French patriotic red, white, and blue were used in fashion illustrations.
There are lots of photos of this sort, which gives a great look at the French fashion industry during the war.
My favorite photos are a group from the Excelsior Archives showing the French working woman. The photos are large and clear enough to see the details of work clothes of the era.
From 1917 to 1919, fashion designs could be registered with the Parisian Labor Court. The authors give us a good look at some of these, like this 1917 design and fabric swatch from the House of Worth.
I loved seeing the photos of clothing from the exhibition. I wanted to see more. This Callot Soeurs dress is from 1917.
You can see how the silhouette changed to a more tubular style as a prelude to the 1920s. Both of these dresses are by Madeleine Vionnet, 1918.
All exhibition catalogs should do this. In the back of the book are thumbnails and descriptions of all the objects in the exhibition. They are tiny, but most of them are reproduced elsewhere in the book. As a person who sees a lot of fashion exhibitions, this is a very handy reference to the details of each object.
The book is heavy, but small (8″ X 6″ X 1.5″) and so it is comfortable to hold and read.
So, I’ll not just this great book by the cover, nor by the print layout. Judging it by the content makes it a must-have for anyone interested in the fashions and culture of WWI era France.