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Tomes of the Times: Summer Reading

Colin McDowell shares his essential summer fashion reading list, from ‘Fashion Game Changers’ to a catalogue of Karl Lagerfeld's work for Chanel.
  • Colin McDowell

LONDON, United Kingdom — Summer fashion books — like summer fashion itself — are normally very much lighter, easier and cheaper than their Christmas counterparts but, again like summer fashion, are no less worthy and interesting. This season proves that very clearly. From the many new books available I have chosen the most interesting: the ones with something much more to offer than just a flick through the pictures. All have a serious text.

Fashion Game Changers: Reinventing the 20th-Century SilhouetteOpens in new window ]

A perfect example is “Fashion Game Changers: Reinventing the 20th-Century Silhouette,” published by Bloomsbury to coincide with “Game Changers: Reinventing the 20th Century Silhouette,” a ground-breaking exhibition at Antwerp’s MoMu Fashion Museum, which runs until August 14th, 2016.


Fashion Game Changers"") | Source: Bloomsbury

The exhibition includes loans from New York's Fashion Institute of Technology; London's Victoria & Albert Museum; MUDE Lisbon and Musée Galleria, Paris. The book — generously illustrated — is edited by Karen Van Godtsenhoven, Miren Arzalluz and Kaat Debo, academics all, and consists of contributions from a wide-ranging selection of museum curators and lecturers — not forgetting the almost obligatory gush of praise from Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of the Museum at FIT, as some sort of seal of approval that, in my opinion, neither catalogue nor exhibition require.


Beautifully designed and produced, the book is illustrated with photographs by many of the late 20th and 21st century's most fashion-sensitive photographers, who understand how to look at cloth and shape as abstracts and imbue them with energy — or total stillness — as required, in images a long way ahead of the ones so frequently seen in fashion magazines.

The texts, like the exhibition, revolve around Cristóbal Balenciaga as an essential mid-20th century figure and catalyst. So, we swing in the essays from Madeline Vionnet and Coco Chanel, through Paco Rabanne and Georgina Godley, to Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo. The writing is as exhilarating as the photographs; the references are wide. But especially interesting are short pieces called "The Insider View," in which individuals give a personal testimony to what it means to wear clothes from Comme des Garçons, Martin Margiela and Miyake, not for a few fleeting catwalk minutes, but in real life. I simply cannot praise this accessible, enlightening book highly enough — for any season.

Women in Dior: Portraits of EleganceOpens in new window ]

Sidney Toledano and Maria Grazia Chiuri | Source: Courtesy/Photo: Maripol Sidney Toledano and Maria Grazia Chiuri | Source: Courtesy/Photo: Maripol

"Women in Dior"| Source: Rizzoli

Another book published to coincide with an exhibition is "Women in Dior: Portraits of Elegance," (Rizzoli). The exhibition is at the Musée Christian Dior in Granville (where the couturier was born and bought up) until September 25th, 2016. Like the exhibition, this elegant book/catalogue features work by Dior himself, as well as his successors: Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano and Raf Simons. But what makes "Women in Dior" different is the fact that, true to it's title, it concentrates not specifically on the designers, but on the clients who bought Christian Dior couture and the elegant women who were his 'kitchen cabinet' within the atelier, such as Mitzah Bricard and Suzanne Luling, and his house models, including Lucky, France and Sylvie, who had such a creative influence on the designer.

With a foreword by Florence Muller and text by Laurence Benaïm, the book is split into heavily illustrated sections: High Society, The Close Circle, Official Events and Red Carpet. As everyone knows, Dior's "New Look" burst upon the world of Paris fashion in 1947. For the next 10 years, until his death in 1957, Christian Dior was the world's best-known fashion creator. The powerful, famous and fashionable all flocked to his establishment at 30 Avenue Montaigne, conscious that to be seen in a Dior creation meant that a woman had "arrived" in fashion, as clearly as her social and political position made her status obvious in other ways. The roll call was amazing: Princess Margaret, Princess Grace of Monaco, the Duchess of Windsor, Jackie Kennedy, Eva Perón, Margot Fonteyn and many more. And so was the demand. Post-war Paris society came to its end in a blaze of incredible private parties and balls for which Dior (and other couturiers, such as Givenchy, Fath and Dior's friend and rival, Pierre Balmain) provided sumptuous ball gowns for the cream of French and international society — gowns normally worn on one occasion only.

It is all here in this fascinating book. But the most valuable thing is that nearly every major client of the house is given her individual biography. That is what makes this book of especial interest as it comes up through the decades, to stars such as Marion Cotillard, Natalie Portman and Rihanna. "Women in Dior" brings alive the world of haute couture through the lives and achievements of those who wore it — and still do for the red carpet moments.

Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and PresentOpens in new window ]


"Fashion Victims" | Source: Bloomsbury

But fashion is not all about glamour. It has a seamy and even dangerous side. It has maimed, crippled and killed many an over-eager fashionista in the history of finery, as “Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present,” (Bloomsbury Visual Arts) by Alison Matthews David, associate professor at the School of Fashion, Ryerson University, Toronto, makes clear in this gloriously gory, ghoulish and gruesome account of how people die as a result of fashion, its creation and consumption. Who would have thought that, over the centuries, there could be so many dangers to health, sanity and life itself, as new inventions and fads were taken up, unquestioning, by fashion followers only too ready to try “the latest thing,” although untested.


Manufacturers launched things that were totally untried for safety, and yet their actions almost always went unquestioned even by coroners and doctors. We all know that "mad as a hatter" comes from the fact that to make a beaver top hat required close work with mercury — one of the most dangerous substances for human health, which eventually drove those making hats to madness. But there were other dangers, not least to the women who wore the creations.

Top of the list in the 18th and 19th centuries were fire and immolation from candles and open grates for women wearing fabrics such as muslin and crinoline. Most deaths from fires happened in domestic circumstances, but the majority of deaths, regardless of the means, occurred in ill-regulated, substandard, dirty and unsafe working areas, something that still happens today in rag trade sweatshops across the globe. “Fashion Victims” makes for a compulsive read and should be a standard volume in school and college libraries today, as well as in the office of any director of a textile and garment factory.


"Stitches in Time" | Source: Random House

Stitches in Time: The Story of the Clothes We WearOpens in new window ]

More broadly based, but very informative, Lucy Adlington's “Stitches in Time: The Story of the Clothes We Wear,” (Random House) is entertaining and frequently funny as it tells the unlikely stories of fashion developments and fads with a light authority, based on the changes in aesthetics, class rules and lifestyles that have influenced the way we dress even up to today. Another one for the school library.

Chanel CatwalkOpens in new window ]

"Chanel Catwalk," (Thames and Hudson) is a chunky tome consisting of 630 pages and over 1,200 images from over 150 collections designed by Karl Lagerfeld for the fashion house between 1983 and 2014 — and still counting. Not exactly a beach read, but an invaluable and comprehensive overview of Lagerfeld's creativity, backed by unprecedented artistic freedom and, one can assume, limitless money. How many of the clothes we are shown ever went into production or were even designed to be sold we are not told in an otherwise useful introduction to the book by Patrick Mauriès, in which he writes that on January 25th, 1983, Lagerfeld was at the peak of his creative powers, inevitably begging the question, "have they been going downhill since that point?"


"Chanel Catwalk" | Source: Thames and Hudsom

Certainly, what Lagerfeld brought to Chanel was a vast experience of designing, including couture at Balmain and Patou, and ready-to-wear for a wide range of labels, among them Krizia, Fendi, Mario Valentino, Cadette, Charles Jourdan and Chloe. He was at that point a jobbing designer, “a man for all brands and no brands,” as Mauriès points out — a judgement endorsed by Lagerfeld himself when he said, “I'm just a mercenary hired to perpetuate the brand.” Just how successful he has been in that role is made evident in this book, although I always wonder what Chanel herself might think of how he has dealt with her legacy in his ceaseless search for something new and arresting.

The formula of the book is simple and accessible. For every season, the ready-to-wear and haute couture are given up to four pages of runway shots, each with an average of four to five images to each spread. And this is what makes this catalogue raisonné of one man’s work so valuable: instead of postage stamp images, these are properly sized records, clearly defined, shown on the top models of the time. The result is a very glamourous book and, by and large, the clothes stand up well, certainly until 2010 when the mise-en-scène began to overpower the clothes in some cases — and still does today. But, of course, modesty and understatement are the last things we need from Lagerfeld and his protean talent.


This book will be a lasting record of Lagerfeld's take on Chanel and an inspiration to anyone involved in fashion, from customers to students. It shows, in publishing as in most things, how valuable and enjoyable a simple idea can be, provided it is the right idea. The next design house to be featured, in what is hoped will become a series, is Dior. Let's hope that Vuitton and Prada are after that to ensure that this will build to be a really valuable visual reference.

Bonnie Cashin: Chic is Where You Find ItOpens in new window ]


"Bonnie Cashin" | Source: Rizzoli

More modest in every way is “Bonnie Cashin: Chic is Where you Find It,” (Rizzoli). Never the less, this is an important and overdue portrait of a visionary whose ground-breaking approach to American fashion makes her the earth mother to virtually every New York designer who came after her. Along with Clare Potter and Claire McCardell, Cashin broke entirely with the watered-down copies of Paris originals that were the basis of New York designer fashion throughout the late ‘30s and WWII, and set it off on the path of indigenous clothes that were chic but informal. Reflecting American women's lives and attitudes, these looks were a million times removed from the European idea of fashion at the time. This book, with its intimate and moving commentary by Stephanie Lake, shows that Cashin really was American fashion's pioneer in the late ‘30s — and continued to be so almost to her death.

The chain of creativity runs something like this: Cashin, Perry Ellis, Calvin Klein, Isaac Mizrahi, Marc Jacobs — and it is still continuing. Simon Doonan's suggestion to current designers, although in some ways negative is, in another, totally apropos: "There is no way you can ever be as diverse, prolific and utterly brilliant," as Bonnie Cashin was.

In other words, they broke the mould after her. In a sense, they could do so because Cashin thought of everything first. The capsule wardrobe, jersey evening dresses, layering, the purse pocket, industrial fastenings, mohair as high fashion, perma-pleated garments well before Pleats Please and, above all, leather and suede in her pioneering work for Coach, were all given the glamour treatment by her, long before others jumped on the band wagon and followed her lead. I think this intelligent and passionate book should be on every designer's bedside table, because we do not see any real visionaries like Bonnie Cashin these days: A woman well before her time, whose clothes still stand up — and out — in today's playpen of fashion design.

This really is a great book. It makes clear Bonnie Cashin's importance in the history of fashion generally and specifically to the American approach to female dress — an approach which stems directly from this woman's work, so well illustrated and explained in this exemplary record of her truly special talent.

We Can't Do This Alone. Jefferson Hack the SystemOpens in new window ]


"We Can't Do This Alone" | Source: Rizzoli

Finally, "We Can't Do This Alone. Jefferson Hack the System," (Rizzoli) which is every bit as personal and self-indulgent as its title and, indeed, Hack himself. Basically, it is a compendium of pages, interviews and fashion statements taken from Dazed & Confused, the hugely influential magazine founded by Hack in 1991, whilst still a student at the London College of Printing, with the photographer, Rankin, and followed by AnOther Magazine and then Another Man. In 2014, Dazed & Confused became Dazed. And now we have a book full of all the best bits, including artworks realised by Ferdinando Verderi to mark 25 quotes from Jefferson Hack's journalistic career

Jefferson's intro drops all the right names, but only too often seems to miss the point they are making in the books and articles from which he quotes. It is a problem that spins over to the pieces he has chosen from the original pages of the magazine. All the right names are there — Tilda Swinton, Ai Wei Wei, Bjork — but somehow they don't quite say anything terribly interesting. Despite this, however, it is the boldness of the concept that has always made Dazed the one to buy. I remember the excitement of the first issues and how fresh and totally right for that time they seemed and, as this anthology of reprinted pages makes clear, still do. But this is not the Paris Review or even The Smithsonian, Dazed is a style magazine. Style dates.

This would not be a Jefferson Hack book if it didn't fit into his creative mantra — “be different” — and it is no surprise that it has a clever twist. Using Kodak’s Prosper 6000 process, covers for each of the initial 5,000 print run of the book were printed at the rates of 5.9 book covers per second using 56 billion drops of ink per second, the whole 5,000 batch being printed in less than 15 minutes, meaning that every copy of the book has a different cover and is numbered, thus making it's a collectors item as with its own unique picture from the magazine.

Editor's Note: This article was revised on July 4th, 2016. A previous version of this article listed Dior's successors as Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, John Galliano and Raf Simons. This list was incomplete. Gianfranco Ferré was also a successor.

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