You Should Be Reading: Designer Memoirs

Some of the most vivid primary sources for historic fashion research are autobiographies and memoirs of great designers. Several of the books listed below were required reading for a fashion history course in my M.A. program. They can be entertaining and intimate, and help historians make a stronger connection with these figures whom we associate primarily with their work and their legacies, but not their voices. Poiret amuses with self-congratualtion and Dior leaves you desperate for content beyond the last page (Christian Dior died suddenly the year before it was published). Three of the four titles were out of print until recently, when the V&A began to reprint them. Early editions can be found used online, or in libraries.

1. King of Fashion: The Autobiography of Paul Poiret, 1931

Paul Poiret’s autobiography tells the extraordinary story of the meteoric rise of a draper’s son to the ‘King of Fashion’. From his humble Parisian childhood to his debut as a couturier, to his experiences during the First World War, Poiret reveals all in this captivating tale. His artistic flair, coupled with his remarkable and highly original cutting skills, enabled him to translate the spirit of Art Deco into revolutionary garments and his memoirs bring this astonishing period to life.  – From the Publisher

2. Dior by Dior, 1958

Christian Dior rocketed to fame with his first collection in 1947 when the ‘New Look’ took the world by storm. This charming and modest autobiography gives a fascinating and detailed insight into the workings of a great fashion house, while revealing the private man behind the high-profile establishment. It is also a unique portrait of the classic Paris haute couture of the 1950s and offers a rare glimpse behind the scenes. Dior details his childhood in Granville, the family and friends closest to him, his most difficult years and sudden success, as well as his sources of inspiration and creative processes.  – From the Publisher

3. Shocking Life: The Autobiography of Elsa Schiaparelli, 1954

Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973) was one of the leading fashion designers of the 1920s and 1930s with a flair for the unusual. The first to use shoulder pads, animal prints and the inventor of shocking pink, Schiaparelli collaborated with artists including Jean Cocteau, Alberto Giacometti and Salvador Dalí, to create extraordinary garments such as the infamous Dalí Lobster Dress and the bizarre Skeleton Dress. Schiaparelli had an affluent clientele, from Katherine Hepburn to Marlene Dietrich, who embraced her outrageous but elegant designs. She designed aviator Amy Johnson’s wardrobe for her solo flight to Cape Town in 1936, the culottes for tennis champion Lily d’Alvarez that outraged the lawn tennis establishment, and her clothes appeared in more than 30 films including Every Day’s a Holiday and Moulin Rouge. Schiaparelli’s fascinating autobiography charts her rise from resident of a rat-infested apartment to designer to the stars. – From the Publisher

4. The Allure of Chanel, 1976

Though not strictly an autobiography, this book is based on a series of conversations between Mademoiselle Chanel and the author, Paul Morand. Morand’s last book, one of the most appealing of his oeuvre, brings together around the figure of Chanel, portraits of Misia Sert, Erik Satie, Serge Lifar, Georges Auric, Raymond Radiguet, Jean Cocteau, Picasso and Churchill, among others. Written in the great storyteller’s marvelous prose, this book artfully sketches the character of the elusive, mysterious and charming creature who inspired Malraux to say: “Chanel, De Gaulle and Picasso are the greatest figures of our times.” Hailed on its publication in 1976 as ” a great celebration of a book, a finely cut, sparkling gem”, The Allure of Chanel attracted the attention of Karl Lagerfeld, who embellished it with seventy-three drawings. – From the Publisher

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1 Comment

  • Sheryl Birkner June 29, 2015 02.05 pm

    i am currently reading “Fashion is Spinach” by Elizabeth Hawes. It isn’t strictly an autobiography, but so much is about her thoughts on the fashion business and her own designer philosophy.


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