Culture

The Runway Booked: A Literary Guide to Fashion History

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Ah, fall. New pencils, new notebooks, and, be still our hearts, new clothes. For lovers of fashion, September is Super Bowl month – when Vogue is satisfyingly fat, and when ladies and germs in Chanel suits and leather pants do their Monday morning quarterbacking as the finest designers in the land unveil their new creations for Fashion Week. S’wonderful, as Cole Porter might’ve swooned. But while we may be what we eat, we also are what we wear. Now that school’s back in session, here are some books that dive behind the mirror of this billion-dollar industry.

  • The cover of the book Fashion

    Fashion

    The Definitive History of Costume and Style

    You think September Vogue packs a punch? Leave it to the Smithsonian to produce such a gorgeous and comprehensive breakdown of the evolution of clothing design. Stuffed with drool-inducing imagery, who’s-who bios of fashion luminaries, and a 3,000-year apparel timeline, this is the book that wants to live on your coffee table. The only caveat? This is a compendium of Western fashion. Other civilizations’ fashion mores are mostly examined through the lens of how they have impacted European and American garb.

     
  • The cover of the book Overdressed

    Overdressed

    The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion

    You could call this the apparel equivalent of “Supersize Me,” Morgan Spurlock’s groundbreaking exposé of the fast food industry. Cline investigates the allure and impact of fast food apparel – the sweatshops in third-world countries where these garments are made, the environmental and economic damage of such production and waste, and the spiritual and emotional impact of disposable fashion – in which nearly everyone from Kmart shoppers to Madison Avenue denizens has access to low-budget versions of runway fashions. To her credit, Cline is the queen of solutions, including recycled and sustainable garments.

     
  • The cover of the book Coco Chanel

    Coco Chanel

    An Intimate Life

    No list of books about the apparel industry would be complete without a biography of Coco Chanel, and rest assured there are a ton of them. The great clothing and beauty magnate didn’t just spawn modern fashion for women; she also singlehandedly has inspired a cottage industry of fashion tomes. Chaney’s is one of the best, a nod to the French woman’s innate glamour and allure that doesn’t skimp on her seamier backstory, including those controversial World II activities. To wit: The lady had a Nazi lover.

     
  • The cover of the book Fugitive Denim

    Fugitive Denim

    Once upon a time, everybody knew exactly who made the clothes they wore. What’s more, once upon a time most people – most women, anyway – knew how to sew. Here, via the great equalizer of denim, author Snyder humanizes what has become a mammoth and anonymous venture of clothing production by profiling the people – the cotton pickers, textile workers, seamstresses, designers, and retailers – who help put jeans in our closets. It’s a soberingly international cast of characters, and Snyder pulls no punches in depicting the controversies and issues of this industry.

     
  • The cover of the book The Daring Ladies of Lowell

    The Daring Ladies of Lowell

    Not everyone realizes that Lowell, Massachusetts, is one of the first places in America where women were employed outside the home. In the factories of this once-great Northern Massachusetts city, female workers made some of the first mass-produced garb history had ever seen. In truth, though, most literary profiles of this world are as dry as the cotton they describe. Alcott’s historical fiction tackles these swashbuckling, often-struggling pioneers with as much style as they produced.

     
  • The cover of the book History of International Fashion

    History of International Fashion

    The illustrations are to die for in this hefty volume, but that’s not the only reason to add this chronicle of apparel to your collection. It’s also a well-balanced look at the rise of the “designer,” given that seamstresses and pattern-makers were once considered as lowly as, well, actors before the twentieth century.

     
  • The cover of the book Cool: Style, Sound, and Subversion

    Cool: Style, Sound, and Subversion

    Technically, this book is not just about clothing. But its examination of the manufacturing of “coolness” – of how subculture become mass culture, especially through the lens of how we look and what we wear – gets at the core of the unique allure of fashion as well as its incredibly complex origins. To the authors’ immense credit, this is not so much a bunch of hipsters patting themselves on the back as an examination of the many influences filtered through every sunglass trend we Instagram.