Male Pattern Boldness is proud to be the world's most popular men's sewing blog!

Jun 29, 2011

Favorite Books on Fashion History

Readers, one of my goals this summer is to increase my knowledge of fashion history -- particularly of the last century.

It's not that I know nothing about fashion history, it's just that most of what I've learned I've picked up watching old movies.  If Lana Turner didn't wear it, I might not know about it.  I have a lot of books on period style but these focus more on industrial design and decor (also areas of interest).

At the Mid-Manhattan Library yesterday I picked up some gems I'd like to share with you, along with a few others I own.

Forties Fashion: From Siren Suits to the New Look by Jonathan Walford (Thames & Hudson, 2008) is a stunner.  Like many of you, I adore Forties fashion -- the cuts, the colors, the accessories, everything.  One of the wonderful things about this book is that it includes German, Italian, British, Australian and even Canadian fashion of the period as well as American.  As one might expect from a fashion book, the photographs are beautiful, but the writing is also excellent: clear and compelling.  (Did you know that due to American wartime restrictions, no collar or ruffle on a dress could be more than 5" wide?)

Happily, the text and the photos support each other, which isn't always the case in fashion books (photographs in many books seem to have been chosen by someone who hasn't read the text too closely, or the photograph will end up pages away from the description of it).

Many of the fashions are modeled by mannequins here, but accessories are included.

Fashion Since 1900 (second edition) by Valerie Mendes and Amy de la Haye (Thames & Hudson, 2010) is more of a pocket-sized book but still full of great photos, and it provides a clear overview up to and including the current period (make sure you buy the second edition).  Although the tone is academic, this is a great book to start with, and you can carry it on the subway.

Not to be handled without a forklift, Fashion Today by Colin McDowell (Phaidon, 2000) is an eight-and-half pound treasure, bursting with gorgeous images and fascinating essays on such topics as "Designer as Superstar," "The Lure of Retro," and "Modeling the Image."  McDowell's writing can be a little dense but he speaks with tremendous authority (he is/was the Senior Fashion writer of the London Sunday Times.)

Warning: the print in this book is in a non-serif font (Arial?), making it tiring to read.  The print is also miniscule -- you may need a magnifying glass and/or aspirin.  Art direction takes precedence over legibility here. 

I already owned Lesley Jackson's The Sixties (Phaidon, 1998), which has an excellent chapter of textile design, and the many historical and ethnic influences that inspired designers of the period.

While not a fashion book, fashion trends are discussed in Thomas Hine's classic Populuxe (Alfred A. Knopf, 1989), which covers design and social trends during 1954-1964, the height of postwar American consumerism.  I love this book.

You can view a more pics of these and other fashion and fashion-related books here.  Are you familiar with any of them?

Friends, what are some of your favorite fashion books?  Any you particularly recommend to the student of Twentieth Century fashion history?

Any pet peeves about fashion books you wish to share?  (In his chapter on models and modeling, McDowell describes a famous Helmut Newton photo in great detail but fails to include a photo of it -- thank goodness for the Internet!)   UPDATE:  McDowell specifically apologizes for this in the back notes -- Whoops!)

Jump in!


  1. Love Vintage by Nicole Jenkins is fantastic, but it doesn't seem to have great distribution outside Australia.

  2. Best for 1900-just past WWII: Elegance: The Seeberger Brothers and the Birth of Fashion Photography. Black and White but absolutely crucial for understanding the whole garconne/flapper ethic.

  3. I like '"Vogue" 20th Centry Fashion' by Linda Watson. My only peeve is that I wish they had more from the magazines and fewer designer profiles.
    (The first part of the book is a decade by decade review. The second part is an alphabetical listing of designers).

  4. My favorite is Blueprints of Fashion: Home sewing patterns of the 1950s by Wade Laboissonniere. (There's also a 1940s book by the same author.) Not much text, mostly pictures of patterns. I love it.

  5. Thanks, guys!

    Toby, that Seeberger Bros. book sounds great -- I just put a reserve on it.

  6. I recently enjoyed, "Edith Head: The Fifty-Year Career of Hollywood's Greatest Costume Designer". Found it at the library.

    There are great stories, many photos and priceless illustrations - even a recipe!

    A terrific book and it covers the best decades for style.

  7. Oooooh, I just love these posts on fashion books! I just finished with the 20s fashion book you posted about awhile ago. I'll be following this thread closely for more book ideas.

  8. These are terrific finds! Of course the library is always best, but next time you are in the garment district, have a peek in The Drama Bookshop at 250 West 40th St (between 7th and 8th). They have a surprisingly large selection of sewing and fashion books, presumably for costumers. I went there to attend the little theater they have downstairs and was surprised to find such a nice little sewing resource. They have a pretty good selection of Folkwear patterns too.

  9. Yay! They have Forties Fashion at my local library. I'll be dropping by there on the way home today.

  10. Next trip to the library.... Seriously though, I've been known to make anywhere from '30s to modern. And for little girls' clothes, length is the only real thing keeping them from looking modern, really, because little girls' dresses haven't changed much since the 30s.

  11. I have never actually taken the time to look at fashion history books past 1910. I love to do costuming and my favorite period is the Edwardian Era of the early 1900s. My son, who is 26 has volunteered me to make Civil War era costumes for his annual trip to Gettysburg in the fall. He only wants 5 male and 1 female costume. Completely authentic. Does he know it's already July?

    Next trip to the library, I'm heading for the fashion history isle, and I'm going to try to pull myself further into the 20th century!

  12. my recent favorite fashion history book is 'The Day Of The Peacock: Styles For Men 1963-1973.' Published earlier this year. It's on both Amazon UK & US. The focus is on UK designers of the era, men's boutiques, bespoke tailors etc. and includes great photos. It's hard to find specific books on men's fashion, so if you have an interest in the 1960s UK, it's worth it!


  13. This comment has nothing to do with your post – I just wanted to send "continued speedy recovery vibes" to your mom.

  14. Julian Robinson is a favorite fashion author. He talks about lots of different areas of design as it pertains to fashion, the human body and appearance.

  15. My pet peeve about 20th century fashion history books is too many designer profiles, too little of what was actually worn. It's not such a problem with old fashions (even though there as well it may be argued how much of it is high fashion and how much is what was worn commonly.)
    I cannot recommend you anything, because I'm Czech... the Czech books would not be of much use to you. :-) Although... these books are in English, too: Scroll down to "Czehc Fashion". I don't know the 1940-1970 one, I borrowed a 1918-1938 one some time ago; that one was quite good, if too expensive for me. Apparently it's out of print.
    Hm... but you'd have to go to Prague to get it. So, whatever.

  16. I adore my copy of Madeleine Vionnet, by Betty Kirke. I thought I knew how to make a pattern until I read this: it was eye opening.

    Not only that, Kirke has taken museum piece Vionnet garments and measured them, inch by inch, across the warp and weft to get an idea of the pattern shapes (simply measuring the pieces normally wouldn't have worked, as most are cut on the bias, and so have 'dropped' to reach the correct shape). It's bordering on an Asperger's-style obsession. But the result is images of the pattern pieces as she thinks they would have been cut.

    Only slight problem: there's NO indication given of scale, ANYwhere. But I've taken up the challenge on more than one of these. It takes a fair bit of (educated) adjustment, but they do come up a treat.


Related Posts with Thumbnails