My Favourite Fashion History Books
The other day I pulled a couple of fashion history books off my shelf for a different post I’m working on, and realized that I actually have quite a library of fashion books. (Disproportionately so, compared to other topics, some might say….) I’ve built up this collection over the years, either purchasing them for myself or receiving them as gifts. As nice as a Google search and Pinterest can be for inspiration, there is still something special about pulling out your favourite books and leafing through the pages.
Today I thought I would share some of my favourite ones along with summaries and thoughts in case you are looking to add some fashion related books to your own library. (I have quite a few, so I’ll do some more posts in the future as well.) First up today are Dress and Fashion History books!
“Decades of Fashion” edited by Harriet Worsley and published by h.f.ullmann
This square little book is probably the one that started my love of vintage fashion, and was the first vintage fashion book that I bought. While I was at college, someone left their copy of this book out on the bathroom counter one night, and I paged through it. (There was some sort of dress-up event happening, and they must have pulled it out for reference) I never knew whose it was, but I copied down the name of the book and checked it out from the library as soon as I could. After a while, I decided that it would be a good one to own, and even today it is one of my favourite books to page through.
It’s mostly a compilation of photographs from the eras, with a tiny bit of historical information at the beginning of each section. I like being able to see photos of what the couture houses were wearing as well as average people. Don’t be fooled by the ugly cover- it’s actually a really great book! (Also, the original edition had a Missoni photo from the 70’s which was way better- it’s too bad in 2011 they reprinted it with this cover!) This one is 603 pages and spans the years 1900- 2010.
“1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s Fashion The Definitive Sourcebook” edited by Emmanuelle Dirix & Charlotte Fiell and published by Goodman Fiell
These three books are great resources for these three decades, as they are full of original images and fashion plates. The editors and writer chose to include mainly fashion illustrations from the time, rather than photographs, because they wanted to be able to show how colourful these eras actually were. When you’re looking strictly at black and white photographs, it can be hard to imagine what the colours would have been at the time.
These are quite thick books at 510 pages, and they are heavy! I originally checked the 1920’s one out of my local library, and then eventually purchased the set of three. They are definitely worth getting if you want original fashion plates for inspiration. While they do have a historical write up at the beginning of each section, these are mostly all about the beautiful illustrations! I wish they had continued with the series and done one for the 1950’s too.
“Everyday Fashions As Pictured in Sears Catalogues” edited by Joanne Olian & Stella Blum and published by Dover
This series of paperback books spans 1900 to the 1960’s and each book is split into sections for each year. This is a good series to be able to see what the average person was wearing during these decades. While looking at couture fashions is a lot of fun, it’s also nice to be able to see which of the trends trickled down to the street. There is a wide variety of fashions shown in these books, from daywear and accessories to evening wear and formal, as well as a small selection of menswear and children’s wear.
Each book averages around 100-150 pages, and since they aren’t too expensive, they are a great alternative to buying original catalogues, since that can get pricey. The only downside is that they are printed in black and white, and I think that some of the catalogue pages would have originally been in colour.
“Fairchild’s Dictionary of Fashion, 2nd Edition” By Charlotte Mankey Calasibetta, Ph.D. and published by Fairchild
This is a very technical book that my friend gave me. (It was a library discard.) It’s not the sort of book you’d just sit down and page through, but I probably should do just that, since there is quite a wealth of information in it. For example, there are nine pages dedicated just to describing the many different kinds of dresses across the world, or if you’ve ever wondered what an escarelle is, you can find out here. There are also some illustrations and photographs to further illustrate points, and at over 600 pages, it’s a very good educational resource. It’s the sort of book you’d have if you were going to fashion college.
(BTW an escarelle is “a pouch or purse attached to waist or hip belt in the 14th and 15th century into which a knife was frequently thrust”)
“The Mode in Costume” & “The Mode in Hats and Headdress” by R. Turner Wilcox and published by Dover
Finally, these two are my favourite fashion history books. Written in 1942 and then republished in 1958, these two books cover the history of fashion beginning in the earliest (recorded) days of 3000 BC and going up to 1958 (the year it was republished). Each chapter begins with a historical overview and descriptions and then ends with several pages of illustrations. These illustrations are based on surviving images and real garments, so they are quite historically accurate, and reveal quite a lot of detail. The books cover a lot of ground, but don’t go so fast as to miss out on the smaller trends such as the French “Directoire” of 1795-1799.
The books also cover mostly Western/European fashion, but they are split into different countries, since different countries each had (and still have) their own spin on the fashions of the day. The Mode in Costume is 477 pages and The Mode in Hats and Headdress is a bit shorter a 348. These are a great educational resource if you want to learn about the evolution of fashion over the centuries. There is also one about The Mode in Shoes. I haven’t read it, but I’m sure it’s excellent as well.
So, there are some of my favourite books for studying and learning about fashion history. With the rise of popularity in vintage fashion in the past few years, the number of books about vintage fashion has also increased; but they are definitely not all equal. I am not a fashion history expert, but I have caught errors in some of the more trendy vintage “overview” style books before. If you are wanting to actually learn about fashion history, these are a good place to start- though they are only the tip of the iceberg! There are so many more books out there…
If you’d like to check these books out, I’d definitely recommend that you look at your local library first. That’s what I did with each of these before I ended up purchasing them. Also, while I did buy the majority of these books new, I am not sure whether they are each still in print, so you can always check at second hand book stores, as you never know what they might have. (I just did a quick search on Thrift Books and Better World Books, and they do have many of these in stock. I’ve never purchased from these online book sellers myself, but I just wanted to give you an idea of where you could look.)
What are some of your favourite fashion history books? Do you have any recommendations for us to check out? I’m always looking for some good new books to read!