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Everyone needs a hobby, right? I’d actually say that everyone needs more than one, and one of mine is a fascination with historic costume.
From research to replication, I’ve spent years studying fabric, frills and fads, and in the course of that I have encountered some fantastic books on the subject that beg to be shared with a wider audience. Even if you don’t have a deep interest in the subject, all these books are filled with glorious eye candy that rewards even a casual browse.
For those just starting to have an interest in fashion history, I’d highly recommend a recent arrival to our collection, “How to Read a Dress: A Guide to Changing Fashion from the 16th to the 20th Century” by Lydia Edwards. It has a somewhat narrow focus — just dresses, and just European/American fashion — but what that narrow focus does is allow it to drill down to the most representative styles of the decade. Every page features a photo of a real surviving dress accompanied by brief explanatory text and labeled to highlight the most striking features.
If you enjoy this book, you can move on to the biggest book in this list, the Smithsonian’s “Fashion: The Definitive History of Costume and Style,” an opulent volume loaded with beautiful photos and broken down by major fashion period. Like the book above, the layout makes it very easy to spot the subtle changes as clothing shifted from one major style to another.
Both would be excellent references for writers of historical fiction because you can narrow down the styles to within a decade and describe them in detail. And, of course, the pretty pictures on every page are definitely an attraction!
Speaking of pretty pictures, my next pick will have you drooling. “Fashion: A History from the 18th to the 20th Century” is an oversized book full of gorgeous photos of items in the collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute. Flipping through the pages, it is so hard for me to pick a favorite: Is it those sparkling rhinestone 1920s high heels or the incredible Worth sunbeam ballgown, or the 1800s purse knitted in the shape of a pineapple?
There’s a lot less explanatory text here, but that’s made up for by the sheer inspiration that comes from looking at some many exquisite objects.
Let’s finish up with something a bit lighter but perhaps even more interesting: “Why’d They Wear That: Fashion as a Mirror of History” by Sarah Albee. If you’ve been flipping through the previous selections wondering about some of the more extreme fashions and what on earth possessed people to wear them, this is the book for you. It looks at those fads and explains them in social context, in a lively and easy-to-read manner. And just because there is a lot of interesting text, that doesn’t mean they skimped on the illustrations; there are ample photographs and drawings throughout the book so that you can picture exactly how wonderful — or ridiculous — each style was.
Genevieve Baillie is the extension services librarian at Wilson County Public Library.