Book Review: The Anatomy of Fashion

anatomy of fashion cover

Colin McDowell is a writer whose work generally makes me feel like we’d get along swimmingly bemoaning this or that about the current Western fashion system of which he is very much a part and of which I am almost entirely on the outside. For example, in his Literary Companion to Fashion, the third sentence in his introduction reads,

Fashion suffers by being very much more interesting than those who follow it.

A fan of Oscar Wilde and Nancy Mitford, McDowell has a sharp tongue and a critical eye. His column for Business of Fashion reviews books and turns a sour note on the decadence and self-importance of the fashion world he has participated in for many decades. With twenty fashion books and countless articles and commentaries for various publications, McDowell would seem appropriately poised for another take on Fashion; he has taken the literary angle, the linguistic angle, a hyper-modern angle, and now: anatomical.

Pages from the introduction. Sans-serif text, sparse layout, various justifications. From "The Anatomy of Fashion" by Colin McDowell, 2013.

Pages from the introduction. Sans-serif text, sparse layout, various justifications. From “The Anatomy of Fashion” by Colin McDowell, 2013.

I was feeling a little haughty throughout the introduction to his book The Anatomy of Fashion, feeling like the material was all too familiar for a groundbreaking new approach–until I read the final paragraph:

Rather than being comprehensive, it is intended to highlight some of the more interesting and revealing facets of dress that are often overlooked. It is not a book written for the dress specialist or costume academic but, rather, a book for the general reader of any age who wishes to learn more about themselves and their fellows by how they dress. (11)

And I was a bit disappointed to find that I agree with him, disappointed that it is another introduction to dress history, reshuffled and presented body part by body part. A novel approach to the basic themes of the field, a lovely new coffeetable icebreaker, but an expensive investment for a new student, and a redundant one for the experienced.

The form and aesthetics are what set this book apart; that sounds like damning with faint praise, but I think they are savvy choices. Each chapter has its own graphic design and layout, but similar enough that they cohere. The middle section, The Body Anatomized–which happens to be the most immediately pleasing to me–is not unlike an image-heavy Tumblr feed with its secondary treatment of text. In the book, facing pages of sharp color photographs are augmented by a smaller, apricot-colored page bound in between with captions and a small descriptive text. Perhaps a more illustrious comparison would be to a museum exhibition, which also prizes the visual, and often comes with an accompanying but separate text.

But we’re getting out of order. The book is organized specifically: the science of anatomy traditionally breaks down the body into parts, systems, layers, and McDowell has done the same. Photography and the image are paramount in each chapter, with high resolution and all the glory of the original colors.

Detail of layout from "The Anatomy of Fashion" by Colin McDowell, 2013.

Detail of layout from “The Anatomy of Fashion” by Colin McDowell, 2013.

The first section, “The Body Unclothed,” has a somewhat misleading title. Separated into three sections itself, this small introductory chapter does the breakdown-anatomy part: skin and body adornment, materials and textures, color and pattern. Worn dress requires and consists of relationships between a human body and material of some sort; here McDowell addresses those separate parts. The prose is easy and reads quickly; it is a theory-free, fact-based overview of each of these categories, from clothing as protection to clothing as art. I was unhappily surprised at the lax attitude toward citing sources or giving proof for some of the more declarative sentences (or…anything at all).

McDowell only provides a select bibliography (263) and a vague “too many such sources for me to list” in the appendices (271). The picture credits are also disjointed and nominal, also banished to the appendices and in a confusing order that seems to only cover legal bases, unconcerned with the more human aspect of copyright. Does this disregard for intellectual/artistic property put at a disadvantage the laypersons whom this book was intended to inspire? On the other hand, a text arguably reads more smoothly without citations getting in the way, and its lack of those academic signifiers may appeal to a greater number of readers. He does, however, reference other sections of the book, which will lead readers interested in brides wearing garlands of fresh flowers dipped in scented water to the section “Romantic,” and those interested in leather as a protective material might be interested in “Armoured.”

Detail from "The Anatomy of Fashion" by Colin McDowell, 2013.

Detail from “The Anatomy of Fashion” by Colin McDowell, 2013.

The text in “The Body Unclothed” is aligned in three skinny columns, a bit like reading a newspaper. Interspersed are lovely, colorful images, and germane quotations from authors and social commentators, such as Mark Twain, are inserted between them, the words justified perpendicularly to the main text. Skimming the surface of a deep lake, the text sculls smoothly from aniline dyes to Indonesian batik, swirls in the use of color in Youthquake designs, glides from the 15th century easily back to the twenty-first, over “black skin” in the fashion world:

Traditionally black skin did not often feature in the fashion world, and even now, despite the occasional high profile of models such as Iman, Naomi Campbell, or Tyson Beckford, it remains true that designers, investors, buyers and journalists are all equally unlikely to have darker skin. …The numbers remain relatively low but will rise, if only in acknowledgement that black people in most societies increasingly enjoy the wealth that enables them to be fashion consumers. (19)

These noncommittal declarative sentences are everywhere:

“White is, certainly in terms of widespread popularity, a relatively modern indulgence: the time and care needed to keep white garments clean were not available to most people until at least the twentieth century.” (41)

Have you heard that before? It’s a borderline truism in fashion history. But considering all readers, this is where you start with Fashion History, the basic facts–even if they are true tropes. At the same time, McDowell helps to enlighten readers about untrue tropes, for example describing briefly the pre-white history of the wedding dress:

The association of white with wedding dresses is a similarly artificial construct. Before 1840, when Queen Victoria set the fashion for white at her own wedding, brides had worn pretty much any colour they wanted. … Unless they were very rich, they wore frocks of ordinary fabrics and colours. (42)

Which is a good start.

This middle section, “The Body Anatomized,” structures its storytelling by body parts, from head to toe. It is very important to McDowell that we examine each part for its contribution to the whole, as opposed to taking a more common top/bottom, waistline-defined approach. In this work,

How we clothe the legs reflects different requirements than how we clothe the neck. The fleshy padding of the buttocks–with their associations both with sex and with bodily waste–is clearly very different from the hands and feet, which are among the most human of our characteristics. (46)

Detail from an introduction. From "The Anatomy of Fashion" by Colin McDowell, 2013.

Detail from an introduction. From “The Anatomy of Fashion” by Colin McDowell, 2013.

The book is loaded with introductions; the book begins with one, as does each of the three major sections, printed on peach-colored paper to differentiate it from the main text. “The Body Anatomized” is further sectioned off into “Head to Waist” and “Hips to Feet,” each with its own dedicated introduction. This follows McDowell’s respect for each body part, giving equal attention. Once introduced, McDowell fans will recognize this section’s image-forward approach to this very visual field from his previous book Fashion Today, which exercised a similar technique. In The Anatomy of Fashion, it allows the reader to flip through the images or to get a little more information from the accompanying texts when an image strikes his or her fancy. The range of different time periods, styles of clothing and accessories, or type of body parts provide a nice juxtaposition that doesn’t conform to the easier chronological organization.

From the "Legs--Concealment + Display" section of "The Anatomy of Fashion" by Colin McDowell, 2013.

From the “Legs–Concealment + Display” section of “The Anatomy of Fashion” by Colin McDowell, 2013.

It’s engaging to see twenty different pictures of arms across time and space, and how they have changed shape, were depicted, create meaning. Legs, to take another example, are split into subcategories of:

  • concealment + display
  • skirts
  • skirt lengths
  • skirt shapes
  • bifurcation
  • exposure
  • trousers
  • and hosiery,

making for a varied, thorough, and sometimes pleasantly unexpected take on what have become a very visible part of our public worlds. As Don Lennon sings, “Everywhere I look I’m seeing bodies.” McDowell touches on this ubiquity, noting that Western people have rarely in our history been more exposed on a daily, public basis; no time like the present to refocus the study of fashion on its physical foundation.

The third section, “The Body Clothed,” collects the body parts into whole pieces again, but separates them into style categories, Activewear to Workwear (with Authority, Generic, and Pomp in between). McDowell begins this introduction with the classic query: “What do our clothes say about us?” When adding layers to our selves with clothing and making choices every morning (and/or evening), many of us can easily be categorized, even if it’s just “Generic.” The inclusion of New Romantic and exclusion of Hipster decries the book’s British viewpoint.

"Generic" clothing style categorized in "The Anatomy of the Body" by Colin McDowell, 2013.

“Generic” clothing style categorized in “The Anatomy of the Body” by Colin McDowell, 2013.

This final section is a satisfying conclusion–everything is put back together again! Continuing the layering and meaning-finding from the first two sections, the history of each common (or once common) style is explained through one large image, two small, and a nice, full page of context. If we’re in an anatomical/biological mindset, these categories are like phyla: each is part of the same kingdom, but they can be easily identified by specific “body plans” (which is what one could call “getting dressed in the morning”). Once McDowell identified the material components, both inbred (skin) and applied (everything else), and identified sections of the body that could be used to classify these creatures, he could create a basic taxonomy of fashion cultures. A nice progression, but I wonder if we can use this scientific method to definitively answer the question of “why we dress the way we do?”

Detail of Chronology from "The Anatomy of Fashion" by Colin McDowell, 2013.

Detail of Chronology from “The Anatomy of Fashion” by Colin McDowell, 2013.

As a conclusion, McDowell leaves the reader with a 23-page chronology of over 42,000 years of bodies and dress, codifying the book’s role as an introductory textbook with a twist.

One more big gripe from my ivory tower: this is hardly is the “first book to reflect” that fashion is about the body, as the Phaidon website suggests. It may be the first to take up the general subject of fashion and dress from a body part-by-body part perspective, and I think it’s an effective and methodical approach. However, a short list: Joanne Entwhiste wrote about ‘situated bodily practice” in The Fashioned Body  [2000], and Body Dressing [Entwhistle and Elizabeth Wilson, eds, 2001] is part of the illustrious Dress, Body, Culture series by Bloomsbury. Another title in that series, The Clothed Body by Patrizia Calefato, dynamically addresses many of the themes McDowell touches upon. The Face of Fashion [1993]written by Jennifer Craik, is also body-focused. There is even a Berg publication with the title The Anatomy of Fashion, from 2009, with a very similar structure outlined by author Susan J. Vincent (1). These are all theory books, and perhaps Phaidon was considering a strictly historic, non-fiction mirror image. But again, from an academic perspective, failing to include these body-focused books in the bibliography was an oversight.

I’d like to think (hope?) that McDowell would be disgruntled with the uncritical praise that many outlets gave his book (though obviously glad for the exposure). I would be hard-pressed to say that this book is “groundbreaking,” “breathtaking,” or, honestly, “in-depth.” Those words are probably better applied to the books mentioned above, or to McDowell’s Literary Companion or his Dictionary of Twentieth Century Fashion.

I really like the skeletal structure of the book, and this review turned into an examination of the structure more than the content because the former is what makes The Anatomy of Fashion worth picking up. There are just so many introductions to and overviews of this field, which is threatening to secure its reputation for shallowness if more writers (and publishing houses) don’t leap into its complicated depths. That said, I am sure that I have judged McDowell more vigorously because of his insider, experienced position in the field and his famously sharp tongue regarding the state of fashion exhibition in museums or fashion journalism.

The Anatomy of Fashion is absolutely worth reading if you are new to the field, or are a fashion-lover who has yet to read anything more than blog posts and designer biographies. It is definitely an engaging way of looking at the basics–if a little too basic, even for beginners–and its insistence on including dress instead of focusing on fashion is admirable.

But if you’re well-read in the field, maybe take it out of the library instead as a refresher course from a fresh perspective (at £60 ($100), it’s an investment). It is well-written and thus enjoyable to read, and we should all make a practice of revisiting the basics of our fields on a consistent basis. But since I carry home half my weight in fashion history books from the library every month, I need to be challenged by what I read. Here the “challenge” was the interesting structure and physical focus. It definitely bridges an aesthetic gap between art-fashion book and independent fashion magazine on the one hand and the academic essay on the other. Its savvy treatment of the material will appeal to many; especially, perhaps, a generation that most often consumes information in non-traditional, highly visual formats.


(1) I’m ashamed to say that I hadn’t done enough internet searching and didn’t come up with this book until it was too late to read it for comparison; I deserve equal academic chastisement. Find a book review of Vincent’s Anatomy of Fashion on the blog of our former contributor Ingrid Mida here.


Lead image credit: Cover of The Anatomy of Fashion. By Colin McDowell. London: Phaidon, 2013.


Find more book reviews on Worn Through here!

Further Reading:

Calefato, Patrizia. The Clothed Body. Oxford: Berg, 2004.

Craik, Jennifer. The Face of Fashion. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Entwistle, Joanne. The Fashioned Body. Oxford: Polity Press, 2000.

Entwistle, Joanne and Elizabeth Wilson. Body Dressing. Oxford: Berg, 2001.

McDowell, Colin. Fashion Today. London: Phaidon, 2000.

McDowell, Colin. McDowell’s Dictionary of Twentieth Century Fashion. New York: Prentice Hall, 1985.

McDowell, Colin. The Literary Companion to Fashion. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1995.

Vincent, Susan J. The Anatomy of Fashion. Oxford: Berg, 2009.

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