Book Review: A Cultural History of Fashion*


Recently updated, Bonnie English’s A Cultural History of Fashion in the 20th and 21st Centuries: From Catwalk to Sidewalk (Bloomsbury, 2013) now includes four chapters on the thirteen short years of this new century. Written by an Australian, its focus is global, in contrast to the dozens of excellent but Anglo-centric books written by British fashion historians. There certainly should be a “Western” between “of” and “Fashion” in that title, or maybe that goes without saying by now?

Her subtitle succinctly captures her point of view: fashion began as a plaything of the aristocracy and has become the obsession of the masses. Class, art (and therefore class/taste), and the unstoppable tide of consumerism and mass production form the framework for this academic work. Professionals in the field will not find anything new in this book; it is meant as an entrée into the world of fashion history. Indeed, the author herself notes at the end of her introduction:

This book is not meant to cover all periods of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, nor all leading designers, nor fashion trends. It is meant, instead, to be informative, outlining the major factors that turned the tide away from exclusivity and regulation in fashion towards a more streetwise, casual and individual way of dressing. (4)

And informative it is. Instead of focusing on fashion designers or silhouettes, which are important but all too often the focus of a young fashion enthusiast’s studies, she presents the beginning fashion historian with theory from Veblen to Evans, and offers a peek into engaging themes and cultural trends. She mercifully skips buzzwords that overshadow the history of the twentieth century, such as “flapper” and “New Look” and digs a bit deeper. For example, in her third chapter, “Framing Fashion: The Artists Who Made Clothes” (44-65), she necessarily includes Schiaparelli and Surrealism but moves on to Viktor and Rolf and “Neo-Dadism” and Hussein Chalayan and “Techno-Design.” I have rarely read another fashion history overview that has so prominently included Stepanova and Popova and Russian Constructivism (49).

Constructivist clothing by Vera Stepanova, 1923 or 1924.

Constructivist clothing by Vera Stepanova, 1923 or 1924.

English explores this riches-to-“rag trade” story in twelve chapters, and it is in this third chapter that she breaks with chronological organization, giving her the freedom to explore cultural themes and theories unbound by the length of hemlines. After introducing the reader to the “interplay between culture and commerce” in the first chapter and using Chanel as her case study for “The Democratization of Fashion” in Chapter 2, English has chosen American style/design, postmodernism, anti-fashion, Japan’s influence on late twentieth-century fashion, recession and ideology, eco-fashion, and a host of other thesis-inspiring topics. She tops this off with her twelfth chapter, “Looking Ahead: The Emergence of Asian and Indian Fashion Design Industries,” as up-to-the-minute as any textbook can be, and an important addition to the original text. She ascribes as much power to street punks and high street as to Alexander McQueen and Ann Demeulemeester, using the lens of consumer culture to “discuss how fashion reflects the essence of its society.” (1)

One of my favorite chapters was the fourth, on “Fashioning the American Body.” (66-84) This may be because it is close to my own research interests, but also a good representation of her flow. Each chapter beings with a quotation, which seems now to be as common in publishing as beginning with a Webster’s definition in grade school essays. Here, Abraham Cahan, a famous New York journalist and prominent socialist, identifies a stark irony in the history of American clothing manufacture and design:

Foreigners ourselves, and mostly unable to speak English, we had Americanized the system of providing clothes for the American woman of moderate or humble means. (66)

As American sartorial identity cannot be divorced from mass-manufacturing at the turn of the twentieth century, the chapter starts there. English name-drops important authors and historical personages the beginning fashion scholar should get to know; a diligent student will look further into: Diana Crane, Edna Woolman Chase, CondéNast, Claire McCardell, the American War Production Board, sportswear, and Christopher Breward, inspired by the well-written tidbits of each history the author provides.

Between the wars, the manufacture of ready-to-wear garments increased dramatically and Seventh Avenue in New York became the American production centre of the ready-to-wear ‘rag trade’. By the 1950s, the American fashion industry had developed methods of production and distribution in ready-to-wear that rivalled those in Europe. … As a new fashion aristocracy arose, it allowed American designers such as Vera Maxwell to react to the dictates of previous fashion in a different way. (68)

Concise but chock-full of information, English identifies pertinent fashion studies topics (Seventh Avenue, “rag trade,” ready-to-wear, Vera Maxwell) with equal weight and easily flowing prose.

Chapter Four continues with American manufacturing as well as identity exemplified in a subheading on objects: mens’ shirts and Levis. Cultural ideas and issues are presented in “American Dress in Hollywood Film” and “Global Conglomerates,” and designers that are synonymous with Americanness are paraded: “Lauren, Klein and Karan” are in focus here, but many more are discussed within the section. Not every chapter follows this name-object-cultural issues-designer format, which keeps things interesting, but the research is consistent in its intelligent and intuitive structure: although written for beginners, English obviously respects her reader.

There are so many dozens of books on the history of fashion that I wonder how libraries choose, or how the patron chooses when he or she is met with the overwhelming shelfful of possibilities. English asserts that this book is “being adopted as a textbook by the world’s leading fashion schools and institutions,” which would be significant for me as a potential buyer/reader…if I knew which schools (some of us are that shallow). Where does this book fit in the history of the history of fashion?

I do rather like the scholarly aesthetics of the book, and the the cover photo is poignant. Taken in 2011 by Dominique Charriau, the model’s styling strikingly evokes the middle of the twentieth century: pastel tulle, big red lips, cat-eye makeup, a big shellacked wave of hair. This book approaches the subject of recycling old fashions in a meaningful way only as regards physical recycling and vintage collecting, but this little nod to the notorious spiral of recurring silhouettes is pleasing. English’s book is of typical and reassuring academic format, familiar to those who have read volumes published the iconic Berg (recently absorbed by Bloomsbury). Long on text and essay, small black and white photographs are occasionally inset. In addition, the author has included two sets of fine color or original black-and-white plates, each with its own page, referenced in the text where appropriate. These images are generally well-chosen for their illustration of the themes discussed while enough removed  for the text to retain its scholarly-essay appearance.

"Pierre Cardin, silver and black outfits, Cosmocorps line, 1963-64. Photographer: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images." Printed in Bonnie English, "A Cultural History of Fashion," 2013, Plate 10.

“Pierre Cardin, silver and black outfits, Cosmocorps line, 1963-64. Photographer: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images.” Printed in Bonnie English, “A Cultural History of Fashion,” 2013, Plate 10.

The back cover suggests that this is the “ideal introductory text for all students of fashion.” Although I haven’t made an exhaustive study of introductory textbooks, this book has a fine, thoughtful, well-researched approach to the subject of 20th- and 21st-century fashion history. I can imagine that a new student would be very inspired by this volume, having gotten a taste of the philosophy of Quentin Bell, an introduction to Yamamoto and Yves Saint Laurent, and a broad but nuanced sense of the chronology of cultural historical events and ideas. Laying a dynamic and intriguing groundwork for lifelong study, A Cultural History of Fashion in the 20th and 21st Centuries would be an excellent starting point. Read it in combination with a more chronological/visual approach, like Fashion Since 1900 or New York Fashion by Milbank, and one with a material focus, such as Textiles:The Whole Story by Beverly Gordon, and you’ll prepare yourself well to enter the ever-expanding field of fashion studies.

Did you read this as a textbook for your fashion studies course in undergrad, or a twentieth-century course in grad school, or on your own? How do you think it compares to other fashion history overviews? What are other favorites you’d suggest to a new fashion historian?


*You can win this book! Look for a contest on our site soon!*

Lead photo credit: The cover of A Cultural History of Fashion in the 20th and 21st Centuries: From Catwalk to Sidewalk (Second Edition). By Bonnie English. Bloomsbury, UK: 2013.


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Further Reading:

Breward, Christopher. Fashion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Cumming, Valerie, C.B. Cunningham and P.B. Cunningham, eds. The Dictionary of Fashion History. Oxford, UK: Berg, 2010.

Gordon, Beverly. Textiles: The Whole Story: uses, meanings, significance. London: Thames & Hudson, 2011.

Mendes, Valerie and Amy de la Haye. Fashion Since 1900. (2nd ed.) London: Thames & Hudson, 2010.

Milbank, Caroline Rennolds. New York Fashion. New York: Abrams, 1989.

Riello, Giorgio and Peter McNeil. The Fashion History Reader. New York: Routledge, 2010.

Taylor, Lou. Establishing Dress History. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004.

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