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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- skirt lengths
- skirt shapes
- 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.
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.
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 , 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 , 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!
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.
This week, “You Should Be Reading” focuses on the relationship between fashion and the city. The four recently published articles below address the ways in which location plays a role in determining what is fashionable, as well as the importance, value, and meaning of fashion. Often this relationship reveals much about the identity of not only the individual but also the collective city. What can we learn about our own identity and relationship to dress by situating the concept of fashion in a particular place and space?
1. Bernstein, S. T., & Kaiser, S. B. (2013). Fashion out of place: Experiencing fashion in a small American town. Critical Studies in Fashion and Beauty, 4(1-2), 43-70.
Individuals who do not neatly fit into the normative parameters of a given place generate new ways of expressing subjectivity and bridging self–other boundaries as well as ‘in-place’ and ‘out-of-place’ ways of knowing. In this article, based on interviews with 21 individuals who have been in and out of place in a small town in Oregon (Grants Pass), we explore each of the three concepts – fashion, ‘out’ and place – to identify the ways in which individuals experience various routes and locations through time and space. – Full Article Abstract
2. Evans, A-M. (2013). Fashionable females: Women, clothes, and culture in New York. Comparative American Studies, 11(4), 361-373.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2010 ‘American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity’ exhibition explored the evolution of female fashion from 1890‐1940, a period when the role of women in society developed rapidly. This article examines two of the cultural roles that fashion helped to define: the heiress figure of the 1890s, and the 1920s flapper. Both types of fashion identity had a distinctive look, such as the corseted waist and moulded silhouette of the 1890s dresses, and the shorter skirts and dropped waist of the later flapper fashions. Focusing on these two models of womanhood, the article explores the idea of fashion more generally in two novels that discuss these figures: the heiress in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905) and the flapper in Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925). — Full Article Abstract
3. Farinosi, M., & Fortunati, L. (2013). A new fashion: Dressing up the cities. Textile: The Journal of Cloth and Culture, 11(3), 282-299.
The aim of this article is to explore the urban knitting movement, a worldwide phenomenon that tries to combine a domestic activity, street or folk art, the reshaping of do-it-yourself culture, and peaceful forms of urban guerrilla protest. The activists employ colorful displays of knitted or crocheted cloth to enhance, beautify, personalize, and gentrify abandoned public places. Furthermore, they use the Internet to share knowledge on techniques and experiences, to organize collective actions, and to record and document their artistic installations. This article is focused on an urban knitting project realized in L’Aquila (Italy) three years after the 2009 earthquake. It was called “Mettiamoci una pezza” (“Let’s Patch It”). The main aim of this project was to “dress up” the main square of the city, covering the gray metal barricades that still block off citizens from some areas of downtown and adding a sprinkle of color and warmth to the devastated city. We studied this movement in an ethnographic way, by applying a qualitative content analysis of the online materials and nonparticipatory observation of this event in L’Aquila in order to investigate what the collective action did both practically and symbolically. Our research shows how the movement was able to promote a very complex and meaningful political initiative. – Full Article Abstract
4. Jayne, M., & Ferenčuhová, S. (2013). Comfort, identity and fashion in the post-socialist city: Materialities, assemblages and context. Journal of Consumer Culture, first published on October 9, 2013 doi:10.1177/1469540513498613.
This paper works at the intersection of three bodies of writing: theories relating to fashion, identity and the city; debate relating to urban materialities, assemblages and context; and cultural interventions advancing the study of post-socialism. Drawing on empirical research undertaken in Bratislava, Slovakia, we unpack a blurring of public and private space expressed through clothing. In contrast to elsewhere in the city, in Petržalka, a high-rise housing estate from the socialist period, widely depicted as anonymous and hostile since 1989, residents are renowned for wearing ‘comfortable’ clothes in order to ‘feel at home’ in public space. We describe the relationship between fashion, identity and comfort as an everyday ‘political’ response to state socialism and later the emergence of consumer capitalism. We argue, however, that by considering materialities, assemblages and context that studies of fashion and consumer culture can offer more complex political, economic, social, cultural and spatial analysis. To that end, we show how personal and collective consumption bound up with comfort and city life can be understood with reference to changing temporal and spatial imaginaries and experiences of claiming a material ‘right to the city’. – Full Article Abstract
Image Credit: http://sarahstylista.wordpress.com/tag/vintage/
We are once again offering our Annual Research Award to our readers. This year, we have decided to distribute two awards, one to a student (any level) and one to a non-student.
Two awards for $250 each.
Award Details: The purpose of these awards is to provide funding to assist independent scholars, students, museum personnel or university instructors for professional projects in the field of fashion, dress, and textile studies. Holding an academic degree in the topic is not required for the awardee. This is not meant for institutions. Teams, groups, and co-researchers are accepted.
Application Deadline: Feb 1, 2014, awards decided by Mar 1 and distributed by Mar 15, 2014.
NOTE: Anyone who has been a contributor or intern with Worn Through within the past two years is ineligible (two years since Feb 1, 2012, going from the due date).
Purpose: The award could be used to assist with image licensing or other publication fees; travel such as that for research, interviews, or to see a collection; conference attendance fees if presenting; purchasing technology such as software or a recording device; or in any other way necessary toward completion or dissemination of the applicant’s project. This is a blog geared toward the study of dress from an academic perspective, thus, projects submitted for award consideration should be academic in approach and rigor, and should include history, theory, academic literature, and meet all appropriate standards of consent and protections from human subjects. Should the project require Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval for the applicant’s research, obtaining that approval shall be the sole responsibility of the applicant and proof should be included with the application if use of the award pertains to an IRB matter.
Details: The portion of the project that utilizes award funds must be completed BY DECEMBER 31, 2014. By the end of this time period the awardee is responsible for submitting a blog post for publication on Worn Through about the project and how the award was used as well as all related receipts.
Application: Send a document (Word, Pages, or PDF) of approximately 500 words with a proposed research plan and explain how the award would be of value to the research. If this is for a small portion of a larger project, please include details on the entire project, such as methodology and long-term goals. If this is for travel funds, explain what would be gained from said research trip or conference attendance.
Also, separate from the word count, include a budget worksheet for the entire project that would show how the award would contribute to the project’s success. Indicate which line items in the worksheet will be impacted by this award. Be specific about how this money would be used and how the applicant would benefit from these funds. Worn Through is looking to assist worthwhile projects get completed and disseminated, and aspires to assist those in financial need.
Additionally, include an approximately 100-200 word bio of each applicant included in the project and/or CV(s).
Contact: Email to Worn Through Founder & Editor Monica Sklar.
Selection Process: The Worn Through team will collaboratively select the recipients after reviewing all completed submissions. Only submissions complete by the deadline will be reviewed. We reserve the right to split the award in half if there are two equally deserving applications.
Best of Luck an all of your Research Projects and Thank You for Your Participation!
Where do you begin when you have only an hour to cover 400 years of quilting history in the United States? Linda Baumgarten, curator of costumes and textiles for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, began with the story of one quilt. Citing diary entries by the quilter, showing close ups and full length images of the quilt, and last a photograph of the quilter with the quilt: Linda’s mother in law, who made the quilt for Linda and her husband.
A perfect introduction to the history of a textile that is as intimate and personal as it is beautiful and artistic. And a perfect match to the “mini-exhibition” that preceded the lecture, which was in fact the sharing by various members of the American Decorative Arts Forum of family quilts, and hopefully getting a clearer picture of the ages and origins of their heirlooms.
The lecture coincides with an exhibition at Colonial Williamsburg of several quilts from Baltimore, on display through May 2014. As well as with the publication of Linda’s latest book on the Colonial Williamsburg (CW) collection of quilts, out next year.
What was equally wonderful about Linda’s lecture is that instead of simply following a chronological history of quilts, she instead focused on aspects of quilting history that were completely new to me, at least. I have always known that quilting was an international craft, as evidenced by the “melting pot” — if you will — of American quilt designs such as the Norwegian star, Amish designs, and others. But I did not know that in the earliest days of the American colonies, quilts from Eastern India were regularly imported by colonists as luxury items. After showcasing the wonderful Flying Geese quilt her mother in law had made for her, Linda cycled through several pieces from the CW collection discussing the lecture’s main question of “what is an American quilt”, finally reaching a quilt from the 1650s, with a gold tambour embroidery pattern on a cream ground, clearly from India. Which emphasized the point: how do you define an “American” quilt when all of these are part of the textile’s history.
I hadn’t realized until then that I had a stereotype about quilts and quilting. I had always imagined it as something “pioneer” women did during the evening, together, to save fabric from discarded clothing, or scraps, to keep their families warm. Quilts in my mind were synonymous with “home made”. And yet Linda shared ship manifests, import records, and newspaper advertisements for ready-made quilts from East India and Britain. All of the quilts were hand made, but not at home. Those imported from Britain, at least, were made by upholsterers’ shops to go with the beds and other furniture they sold. Not that quilts weren’t made at home, but until about 1800 or a little later, they were made by middle and upper class women as a luxury item, and way to show off their skills, and as a way to socialize, since typically more than one person worked on a quilt. Even men made quilts. Later in the lecture Linda showed paintings of men in hospital during World War I working on quilts as part of their therapy.
Quilts also followed fashion to a certain extent. At the beginning of the colonial period and through the eighteenth century, plain ground quilts made of glazed wool were particularly popular. Later on appliqué became popular, especially as the nineteenth century progressed when “autograph” quilts, or quilts such as those in the image above, became all the rage. In an autograph quilt, each woman contributes one square before the quilt is finished (placed over the quilting in the middle and given a back), usually as a gift for someone who might be leaving town. This might be because the woman married, or a young man was going to college, but the story of one quilt was quite bittersweet: a minister’s wife whose husband was sent to a new parish nearly every two or three years would request a quilt square from friends she had made during her stay and now had to leave. A way to remember people and be remembered.
The autograph quilts brought forward something else I had not realized — the near-identical designs in several of the squares revealed that there were in fact “kits” of squares where all the appliqué pieces were pre-cut and even pinned in place so that all the purchaser had to do was sew them together. I had always thought of the craft kits you see in various stores or online — whether entire knitting projects with pattern and yarn, maybe even needles, or sewing projects with all the pieces and the instructions for how to put it together — were a completely modern invention. A novel way to teach skills everyone used to have but now are somewhat rare. The more I study art and dress history the more I realise nothing is new.
Another revelation was that many of the patterns used in the quilting stitches were created by professional pattern designers as well, not necessarily passed down through the generations. Once popular these designs would last for generations no matter how general aesthetics had changed — hence the Baroque designs you see on quilts made during the height of the neoclassical period.
And this brings me to the most amazing part of Linda’s lecture, and what I am sure will be the highlight of her upcoming book. She would show us quilts, sometimes very simple Amish quilts, and then she would show us a graphic in white that showed the amazing, elaborate quilting stitches in the background, otherwise invisible in the photograph. This was incredible because it enabled me to see things I don’t even know if I would have seen in a museum with the quilts on the wall in front of me. It highlighted a very particular aspect of historic quilts: they were designed to be seen on beds, in the bedroom, where the sunlight from a window could catch the change in the texture and other patterns on a horizontal surface you otherwise would not be able to see.
These patterns also help you to determine a quilt’s place of origin. Linda placed two quilts side by side, each seemed to use the same triangular appliqué or patchwork pattern, the same dark colours that one would expect from an Amish quilt. Then Linda showed the patterning of the quilting stitches which were completely different and revealed that one was indeed Amish, the other was Welsh. Vital in the textile history world to be able to tell the difference, or even if you are a quilt collector.
Another incredible discovery is the literary history that can be found inside the quilts themselves. Women would cut out out pattern pieces from old books, papers, newspapers, letters — like the unfinished quilt by Francis Scott Key’s wife at the San Jose Quilt and Textile Museum, where Key’s love letters to his future wife are found under the quilt as pattern pieces. Who knew quilts could reveal what the average household might have read — or no longer wanted to read.
Quilts as a luxury item made by and for upper and middle class families didn’t last. As the nineteenth century wore on and the industrial revolution led to more, cheaper fabric, quilts took on their current perception of being how families preserved scraps and bits of fabric. It is also when the African-American tradition of quilting began to emerge. And now quilting has returned to the earlier tradition of being a luxury, a craft. And one which has retained its social aspect.
In the eighteenth century their were quilting parties or “quiltings”, where young women would socialize not only with each other but perhaps brothers of friends, and other potential partners. Many even ended in impromptu dances once the daylight faded and the quilting materials were put away. These evolved into the quilting bees of the nineteenth century, where women would congregate to work on a quilt.
What I came away with was a history as rich and varied as America’s own. The quilt has been with us since the beginning, and it changes and evolves with us. From luxury to necessity to art form to cherished tradition.
There was not enough time to cover everything. An hour for 400 years is not enough. Still, there was so much information. Crazy quilts of the nineteenth century were barely touched on, as were several other fads and traditions.
I guess I’ll just need to buy Linda’s book next year.
This week, Worn Through would like to highlight an area that tends not to receive much recognition in our field: fashion and age. While the youthful ideal holds sway in fashion advertising, there are certainly many consumers who do not meet that demographic. Are brands unintentionally ostracizing a potentially lucrative market? What happens when brands *do* target these markets? How should a brand go about seeking an older demographic with more disposable income? What might this demographic be looking for, both in stores and online? These are just a a few of the questions these three recently published articles explore. We hope you enjoy!
1. Ban, L., & Chen, G-Q. (2013). The lifestyle oriented marketing of fashion luxury. Advanced Materials Research, 796, 519-522.
The individual interviews were adopted in this research to investigate and to conclude the characteristics based on lifestyles and fashion consumption behaviors of the different customers in China. Consumers were grouped according to the age, life cycle, educational background and occupation to be interviewed for lifestyle. Six lifestyles were concluded according to the most prominent behavior of the consumer. The differences in five major items of lifestyle were also concluded. The influential factors on fashion luxury consumption behaviors of Chinese consumers were discussed. The marketing strategies towards consumers with different lifestyles were proposed on the basis of consumer lifestyle. – Full Article Abstract
2. Mackinney-Valentin, M. (2013). Face value: Subversive beauty ideals in contemporary fashion marketing. Fashion, Style & Popular Culture, 1(1), 13-27.
Through five cases from high-end fashion brands, this article explores the use of models in contemporary fashion marketing. The models represent subversive beauty ideals, and the aim of the analysis is to determine whether these ‘faces’ are intended to challenge stereotypes concerning age, gender, body and sexuality or whether they are examples of marketing absorbing consumer behaviour to appeal to contemporary consumers. The research is based on fashion campaigns and runway shows in mainly luxury fashion brands in the Euro-American market in the period 2009–2012. The article concludes that while greater diversity may be a positive side effect of the use of subversive beauty ideals the stereotypes are also the prerequisite for the social strategy at play. This strategy deals with the Logic of Wrong where social distinction is created through literally doing something that is considered socially or culturally wrong. – Full Article Abstract
3. Tripathi, G., & Dave, K. (2013). Store format choice and relationship quality in apparel retail: A study of young and early-middle aged shoppers in New Delhi region. Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, 20(5), 479-487.
Shopping format choice has been an interesting and important area of research in the academic literature for a long time. However, research in this area is presently at a nascent stage in India. There are a very few studies which focus on store format choice in India apart from the work of Anand and Sinha (2009),Prasad and Aryasri (2008), Sinha and Banerjee (2004) and Tripathi and Sinha (2008). The present study compares three different retail formats (Discount stores, Exclusive stores and Multi-brand outlets) based on the shopper’s perception of relationship quality (RQ) of these stores using multivariate techniques. For addressing the objective of this study a sample of 313 shoppers is used. Results suggest that “conflict due to store” and “combined overall RQ due to the store and its employees” influence the store format choice. The RQ levels among the apparel store format are highly competitive. – Paraphrased Article Abstract
Image Credit: stellafluorescent.blogspot.com
They gave him garments of servitude, which he imagined the candid cloak of the martyr
Oh naïve! Natively naïve! Fez and boots for his free domesticated feet…
He rids himself of his collar–his tie hides the sweat soaking his shirt–of his somber jacket.
He leans over a second plain saturated with fezzes and blood. (179)
From Léopold Senghor, “The Despair of a Free Volunteer”, cited in “Photography, Poetry, and the Dressed Bodies of Léopold Sédar Senghor” by Leslie Rabine.
Analysis of the life and work of a well-known Senegalese poet is one of the many observative approaches to the titular subject of African Dress. Offering the authority of a host of PhDs in African and dress-related subjects, this book offers a compendium of essays broad in scope and focused in nature. Arranged in four Parts, they begin under the rubric of “Dressed Bodies and Power,” move through “Material Culture, Visual Recognition and Display” and “Connecting Worlds Through Dress,” and finish with “Transculturated Bodies.” Of course, many could easily fall under more than one of these headings; as one authors notes, “clothing, after all, is complicated.” (77) In these sections you will find: the lightness and frivolity and deadly seriousness of colorful textiles that are local, imported, or both; politics; incarnations of the veil; military history; traditional and modern embroideries; colonialism; fashion photography; Obama; poetry; and travel. Lots of gender, some sexuality, very little on non-traditional gender identities or diverse sexualities, but the lack reflects the nature of the societies observed. Questions and conflict surrounding religious dress abound, as these are common and public topics in the featured countries.
Senegal is most often represented, along with Nigeria and Ghana; West Africa dominates the scholarship. While each of the essays is located in a specific city (or two), sartorial expression is a complicated construction, and ethnicities and religions that don’t conform to geographic boundaries often manifest as stronger influences than national identity. The figural, modern “Ghana Boy” embroidered tunics Victoria Rovine contrasts with the traditional, Islamic tilbi garments in Mali belong to a group of young men who define themselves more by travel, experiences, and age than by country of origin. Tina Mangieri’s work most explicitly studies this local/Islamic/Western collision felt by Swahili Muslim men who live in Kenya.
Typical opening pages of a chapter. From “African Dress,” 2013.
A strength of the book is its Afrocentric approach: fashion is defined in African terms, by Igbo and Ghanaian traditions. Editor Karen Tranberg Hansen, a well-known scholar of African dress, fashion, and domesticity, notes in her introduction:
When it comes to the study of dress practice in Africa, we are confronted by a widespread scholarly tendency that privileges Western exceptionalism and denies any non-Western agency in the development of fashion. (1)
She notes other concerns within the more general study of dress and fashion:
One is the trivialization of consumers’ interests in clothes, an antifashion tendency the devalues the significance of dress as a cultural and economic phenomenon…The second concern is the distinction between fashion in the West and the ‘traditional’ clothing of much of the rest of the world, unchanged for generations, drawn by scholars who attribute fashion’s origins to the development of the capitalist production system in the West. …A third concern arises from the lingering effects of the trickle-down theories that have restrained our understanding of the sources and currents of dress inspirations. (4-5)
Western-African ties, conflicts, and cultural influence rumble right beneath and often break the surface, unavoidable when studying contemporary dress issues in an increasingly global world. Western theorists such as Veblen, Barthes, and Simmel make their obligatory appearances, but the authors also adapt or manipulate these well-worn theories to fit non-western cultures, or reject the Western foundations for a more inclusive, global fashion history, as challenged by Hansen in the introduction. Kelly Kirby drops a range of fashion theory names in the introduction to her essay, “Bazin Riche in Dakar, Senegal: Altered Inception, Use, and Wear,” as she seeks to find a satisfactory definition of “dress” and “fashion”:
Following Hansen, I use the term dress in this chapter to be inclusive of both cloth and clothing. I also build upon Barnes and Eicher’s definition of dress as “an assemblage of body modifications and/or supplements displayed by a person in communicating with other human beings’. … I draw from Georg Simmel’s definition of fashion to make a final distinction between dress and fashion. Simmel suggests fashion is a ‘form of imitation and so of social equalization…The elite initiates a fashion and, when the mass imitates it in an effort to obliterate the external distinctions of class, abandons it for a newer mode’. Thus, according to Simmel, individuals have minimal freedom as adherents to fashion yet are liberated from having to make personal choices about what to wear. (64-65)
She later locates shortcomings in applying Simmel’s rich-first theory to her examination of the use of a cloth imbued with socially-constructed web of class, wealth, and display:
I suggest, however, that intent–intent of the observer, of the wearer, and the creator–must be considered as an important component that contributes to the augmented values related to the use and wear of bazin riche. In this context, then, what Simmel’s perspective on fashion lacks is recognition that no one, not even the elite can ‘pay’ for the gift of creativity. And therefore, rich or poor, ‘intent’ and the ability to execute it is not always contingent upon socioeconomic status. (73)
Are these old-school theorists relevant here? The first essay, “Dressing for Success: The Politically Performative Quality of an Igbo Woman’s Attire,” may be most successful in that endeavor; the rites, rituals, and performance Misty Bastian observed, experienced, and describes for the reader belong singularly to the town of Onitsha, in Nigeria. In this and many other chapters, the experiential real stands for itself and has no use for or intentional basis in Western theory. What is African fashion theory? Should, or could, it be established? Do we need a theoretical framework to understand each fashion system, and does the negation of existing models require the construction of one or many new?
The tone of most of the chapters skews toward the anthropological and academic; that is to say, probably most of interest to those already engaged in advancing their knowledge of the subject. The form of the book itself privileges the written word and includes, at maximum, three black-and-white photos and one color plate.
Color plate featuring commemorative Obama fabric; facing two black and white figures from a different article. From “African Dress,” 2013.
The series to which this book belongs, Dress, Body and Culture (Bloomsbury), features a few titles that encompass African fashion practices, some edited by contributors to African Dress. The format will be familiar to readers of that series, providing great research, ample citations, excellent bibliographies, and highly quotable writing, but is not quite enjoyable to read cover to cover. There is a lot of information here. Much like collections of short stories, these edited volumes of short, focused research allow the reader to choose which subjects are most applicable to one’s interests, and take the work on in smaller chunks. That said, the flow of the book is pleasantly intentional, as set out by Hansen in the introduction (6-9). It’s nice to read a chapter about the Senegalese notion of sañse (to dress up; a complete outfit (63)) and see the concept referenced in the following chapter on Mauritanian shabiba (85). There are a few gratuitous instances of academic buzzwords like “performative” and “unpack,” but this comes with the territory, and did not ultimately take away from the content.
African dress has lately been highlighted by the Western fashion press, most significantly Lagos and Nigerian Fashion. The Business of Fashion ran an article on November 5 about Morocco outpacing its neighboring countries in the fashion race (or…in attracting fashion chains, at least). Suzy Menkes chaired the “Promise of Africa” conference last year, on Worn Through here. Guaranty Trust Bank Lagos Fashion and Design Week happened last month, and The Financial Times Style section recently called Lagos a “global fashion hotspot.” While the authors in African Dress define fashion and dress in a unique, Afrocentric way, newspapers and magazines are combing these cities and fashion systems into the stream of catwalks, skinny models, and spiraling Seasons–privileging that Western construction of fashion. Lagos, in its success, is poised to become a metonym for African Fashion–perhaps to its benefit, like New York’s situation in America, although being the fashion capital of an entire continent is quite a different responsibility. While African fashion deserves more than an ethnographic or anthropological review of its fashion systems–it can be fun and frivolous too–the articles in this book successfully value the small details and the distinctions of each place.
As Hansen writes in the introduction, this book is unique and worthwhile because
it not only features scholars who enjoy exceptional access to sources close to public persona like Josephine Baker, Léopold Sédar Senghor, and Malick Sidibé but also contributors who have experienced the trials and tribulations as well as the joys of conducting research on clothing in the context of everyday life in some of Africa’s most bustling cities. (6)
A generalist addition to the genre, it is an example to emerging scholars in African studies, anthropology, and dress history that will serve to educate on the “rising star” of Africa from a human perspective or to expand a research paper or inspire fieldwork. Good research practices, interesting subject matter, and logical, easy-to-read presentation are reasons enough to pick up this book. As a title, African Dress aspires to cover an extremely large landmass comprising many distinctive nations, ethnicities, and cultures; the content deftly continues to work toward defining that broad term by offering engaging individual stories, showing the average reader that African dress is more than kente cloth and postcolonial performance.
Lead Photo Credit: Cover of African Dress: Fashion, Agency, Performance edited by Karen Tranberg Hansen and D. Soyini Madison. Bloomsbury, 2013.
Find more book reviews on Worn Through here!
Craik, Jennifer. The Face of Fashion: Cultural Studies in Fashion. London: Routledge, 1993.
Eicher, Joanne B., Sandra Lee Evenson and Hazel A. Lutz. The Visible Self: Global Perspectives on Dress, Culture, and Society [3rd ed.]. New York: Fairchild Books, 2008.
Eicher, Joanne B. Dress and Ethnicity: Change Across Space and Time.
Gott, Suzanne and Kristyne Loughran. Contemporary African Fashion. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2010.
Hansen, Karen Tranberg. Salaula: The World of Secondhand Clothing and Zambia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
Hansen, Karen Tranberg, ed. African Encounters with Domesticity. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992.
Hendrickson, Hildi. Clothing and Difference: Embodied Identities in Colonial and Post-Colonial Africa. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996.
Maynard, Margaret. Dress and Globalisation. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2004.
Perani, Judith and Norma H. Wolff. Cloth, Dress and Art Patronage in Africa. Oxford: Berg, 1999.
And, obviously, dozens more.
There are many great changes afoot here at Worn Through. While we are sad to see some of our contributors leave, it is exciting to bring in new voices and perspectives, and all the changes have enabled us to notice a gap in our coverage: namely those fashion and dress studies events happening here in North America. So with no further ado, I present my new column, ‘Domestic Affairs’, where I hope to fill that gap by sharing exhibitions, lectures, book publications, and anything else related to the study of fashion and dress here on Worn Through’s home continent, if you will.
I cannot possibly travel to every happening, but I am committed to bringing as much information as possible to our readers, so if any of you have an event coming up, or know of one you would like featured, please email me at email@example.com. I am happy to conduct interviews over email or by phone to gain deeper insights and perspectives on exhibitions and lectures, and I will travel to those events I can. Or you can always let me know about something in the comments (as well as letting me know what else you would like to know about something already covered)!
This week I can report on two events. The first is the Costume Society of America, Western Region‘s announcement of the Jack Handford award. The Jack Handford Summer Internship awards a $2000 stipend for a student internship at an accredited museum or educational institution with a costume or dress collection. The Western Region is currently seeking applicants AND accredited institutions to participate for the summer of 2014. Applicants must be current CSA Western Region members, and the internship is open to undergraduate students about to commence their senior year and to graduate students.
Applications for both students and institutions are available at the website above. Though for more information please feel free to contact Jeremy Miller, Student Awards and Summer Internship Chair for the Western region.
Application deadline is January 10, 2014.
The second event is Linda Baumgarten‘s return to the American Decorative Arts Forum of Northern California, with a lecture on the amazing history of quilt-making in America. Since 1978, Ms Baumgarten has been the curator of textiles and costumes for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and is responsible for its collections of antique quilts and coverlets, costumes and textiles, and will be presenting “400 Years of Quilts, Styles, and Influences”. The lecture will be on November 12 in the Koret Auditorium at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. There will be a mini-exhibition at 7:15 pm, and the lecture will begin at 8:00 pm.
Ms Baumgarten’s lecture will ask the question “What is an American quilt?” in the context of the quilt’s history and use within the United States since its earliest years of settlement. According to the event announcement, Ms Baumgarten’s answer to this question is that ‘the story of American quilts is really many stories, “written” in the stitches of the women – and men – who produced them’.
You can read more about the lecture and mini-exhibition at the website above. I will be attending the lecture and will be able to give a summary and review, and I hope a mini-interview with Ms Baumgarten, in my next column (November 20). Are there any questions you would like me to ask? Anything you would like to know about the history of quilts in the United States or about the Colonial Williamsburg collection?
Also, please email me or leave events you’d like covered in the comments below!
Opening image credit: Pieced quilt top fragment, England, 1700–1730, silks and metallic threads over earlier paper templates. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Obtained via http://www.adafca.org/
Let’s face it: fashion, at least since the 18th century, has been strongly associated with women. Over the past several centuries, it has unfortunately been connected with women’s frivolity and vanity. And in contemporary society, men’s fashion shows are covered almost as an afterthought to the highly publicized women’s fashion weeks; one need only browse a rack of fashion magazines at the bookstore to notice that by and large, the target market is women. This female-centric focus extends to research in fashion as well; because fashion is so much more associated with women, the research questions tend to focus on them as well. However, that is starting to change. As the study of fashion gains traction in academia, new questions arise to explore areas traditionally neglected in the research. The three recently published articles below highlight some of those topics, from the flamboyant peacocks of the 1920s and ’30s to the rapidly expanding world of hip-hop menswear and the role of male attire in shaping first impressions. We hope you enjoy!
1. Howlett, N., Pine, K., Orakçioglu, I., & Fletcher, B. (2013). The influence of clothing on first impressions: Rapid and positive responses to minor changes in male attire. Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management, 17(1), 38-48.
Clothing communicates information about the wearer and first impressions can be heavily influenced by the messages conveyed by attire. The purpose of this paper is to investigate the effect of minor changes in clothing on the perception of a male model, in the absence of facial information with limited time exposure. In an on-line study, 274 participants rated four images on five dimensions (confidence, success, trustworthiness, salary and flexibility). The man was depicted wearing a bespoke (made-to-measure) and a regular (off-the-peg) suit, which differed only in minor details. Participants saw the faceless images for a maximum five seconds. The man was rated more positively on all attributes apart from trustworthiness when pictured in the bespoke suit. The earnings of participants also played a role in perception, with higher earners giving lower ratings to both suit types. Minor clothing manipulations can give rise to significantly different inferences. Even small changes in clothing choice can communicate different information to a perceiver. On the evidence of this study it appears men may be advised to purchase clothing that is well-tailored, as it can positively enhance the image they communicate to others. This study is the first to empirically investigate first impressions using time-limited images with minor clothing manipulations on a faceless model. Impressions arose only from clothing and were not confounded by physical attractiveness or facial features. – Paraphrased Article Abstract
2. Lewis, T., & Gray, N. (2013). The maturation of hip-hop’s menswear brands: Outfitting the urban consumer. Fashion Practice: The Journal of Design, Creative Process & the Fashion Industry, 5(2), 229-244.
Hip-hop clothing brands emerged in the 1990s in response to a growing acknowledgment amongst its artists that fashion was an important part of the culture. From the 1980s into the 1990s, hip-hop fashion was an adopter of designer brands that represented an aspirational American lifestyle of its wearers. With the introduction of clothing brands in the 1990s, founded primarily by African-American men involved in the rap music industry, hip-hop clothing began to exert its own influence on American fashion. However, as the youth who followed hip-hop culture matured their clothing preferences began to change and few brands were able to quickly adapt. The most successful brands have proven to be those that were the earliest entrants into the market and managed to maintain a brand equity that likely associated them with authenticity among consumers. One of the most profitable brands was headed by hip-hop music entrepreneur Russell Simmons who was also interviewed for this article. – Full Article Abstract
3. Maglio, D. (2013). Peacocks in the sands: Flamboyant men’s beachwear 1920-30. Critical Studies in Men’s Fashion, 1(1), 23-38.
**Note: This article is a selection from Intellect’s new Critical Studies in Men’s Fashion journal, the first issue of which was published in October.
Palm Beach, Florida in winter was ideal for luxury pastimes of the social elite and, equally important, an opportunity to see and be seen in the latest leisurewear. Journalists documented the habits and styles of millionaires and movie stars. This information was both society news and fashion direction to the menswear industry. The newest ideas in men’s beachwear from luxury resorts in Florida and Europe ultimately influenced beachwear in retail stores throughout America. Photographs and descriptions in menswear publications of resort wear were compared to the textiles and garments I examined at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (MFIT), New York and the Hampshire Museum Collections, United Kingdom. Men who dressed for business in constrained clothes transformed into peacocks in the sands with no concern for appearing less than masculine. Flamboyant dress in this period reflected an exceptional use of colourful robes, pyjamas and bathing suits often with extravagant patterns. – Full Article Abstract
Image Credit: stellafluorescent.blogspot.com
This week, Worn Through would like to highlight a subject that receives a lot of attention in the media: fashion and body image. The question of fashion’s role in shaping young people’s body images has been hotly debated for the past several decades and especially in the last ten years. Is fashion’s preference for a tall, thin body type at least partly responsible for the booming diet, weight-loss, and cosmetic surgery industries? Does fashion advertising have different effects on a girl or woman based on her preexisting weight, friend group, and skin color? How does one measure the effect of fashion on body image? These questions are only a few of those explored in the following three recently published articles, which examine various aspects of the fashion + body image issue. We hope you enjoy!
1. Kashubeck-West, S., Coker, A. D., Awad, G. H., Stinson, R. D., Bledman, R., & Mintz, L. (2013). Do measures commonly used in body image research perform adequately with African American college women? Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 19(3), 357-368.
This study examines reliability and validity estimates for 3 widely used measures in body image research in a sample of African American college women (N = 278). Internal consistency estimates were adequate (α coefficients above .70) for all measures, and evidence of convergent and discriminant validity was found. Confirmatory factor analyses failed to replicate the hypothesized factor structures of these measures. Exploratory factor analyses indicated that 4 factors found for the Sociocultural Attitudes Toward Appearance Questionnaire were similar to the hypothesized subscales, with fewer items. The factors found for the Multidimensional Body-Self Relations Questionnaire–Appearance Scales and the Body Dissatisfaction subscale of the Eating Disorders Inventory–3 were not similar to the subscales developed by the scale authors. Validity and reliability evidence is discussed for the new factors. – Full Article Abstract
2. Lunde, C. (2013). Acceptance of cosmetic surgery, body appreciation, body ideal internalization, and fashion blog reading among late adolescents in Sweden. Body Image, 10(4), 632-635.
This study examined adolescents’ attitudes of cosmetic surgery, as well as the relationships between these attitudes, body appreciation, body ideal internalization, and fashion blog reading. The sample comprised 110 (60 boys, 50 girls) late adolescents (mean age 16.9 years) from a Swedish high school. The results indicated that younger adolescents seem somewhat more accepting of cosmetic surgery. This was especially the case for boys’ acceptance of social motives for obtaining cosmetic surgery (boys’ M = 2.3 ± 1.55 vs. girls’M = 1.7 ± 0.89). Girls’, and to a limited extent boys’, internalization of the thin ideal was related to more favorable cosmetic surgery attitudes. Athletic ideal internalization and body appreciation were unrelated to these attitudes. Finally, girls who frequently read fashion blogs reported higher thin ideal internalization, and also demonstrated a slight tendency of more cosmetic surgery consideration. – Full Article Abstract
3. Seock, Y.-K., & Merritt, L. R. (2013). Influence of Body Mass Index, perceived media pressure, and peer criticism/teasing on adolescent girls’ body satisfaction/dissatisfaction and clothing-related behaviors. Clothing & Textiles Research Journal, 31(4), 244-258.
The present study investigated the relative importance of Body Mass Index (BMI), perceived media pressure, and peer criticism/teasing for body satisfaction/dissatisfaction of female adolescents and their clothing-related behaviors. This study also examined the influence of body satisfaction/dissatisfaction on clothing-related behaviors. Data were collected from a convenience sample of 320 high school girls living in a southeastern part of the United States. The data analysis consisted of exploratory factor analysis, hierarchical regression analysis, and bivariate and multiple regression analyses. When examining the relative importance of the three variables on adolescent girls’ body satisfaction, BMI was found to be the least important factor. When entered into the regression equation alone, BMI was found to be a significant determinant of body satisfaction/dissatisfaction. However, when it was entered into the regression equation with perceived media pressure and peer criticism/teasing, BMI was not a significant factor. The results showed that perceived media pressure and peer criticism/teasing have significant negative influences on adolescent girls’ body satisfaction. The results further indicated that perceived pressure from media affects both self-enhancing and body-concealing clothing-related behaviors. The results also revealed that peer criticism/teasing is a critical determinant of Body-Concealing Behavior. BMI, however, do not demonstrate significant influence on either self-enhancing or body-concealing behaviors. A significant positive relationship was found between body satisfaction and self-enhancing behaviors, whereas a significant negative relationship was found between body satisfaction and body-concealing behaviors. – Full Article Abstract
Image Credit: stellafluorescent.blogspot.com
We’ve just moved back to Stockholm from Boulder (whose kick-ass rock-climbing, heli-skiing, mountain-biking citizens were once deemed “Worst Dressed but Best Looking Underneath“), and I am appreciating this fashionable European city anew. I listen to the podcast Stil i P1 (wrote about it here), and one of the episodes from early this year focused on what it means to design Swedish fashion. Is it a help or a hinder to make clothing with an intentional, identifiable nationality? I was surprised that so many designers say they avoid overtly Swedish signifiers and aim for a global aesthetic. I would have thought Swedish or Scandinavian would be a niche, since it is (or at least was) having a Moment. You’ve heard of Acne, no? And maybe seen a Fjällräven backpack?
This idea of Scandinavian Design, that there are aspects significant and inherent in clothing from this part of the world, was inspiration for Dorothea Gundtoft’s new book, Fashion Scandinavia. She also has noticed a moment/Movement, sometimes here called The Swedish Fashion Miracle (Det svenska modeundret, explored in a book of the same name by Karin Falk). Scandinavian design, generally furniture, textiles, and architecture, have been admired for a long time, but fashion has only recently come to the forefront of that field. While interest in Scandinavian homegoods tends to be backward-looking, favoring “midcentury modern” classics, Scandinavian fashion is appreciated for its forward-thinking attitude toward dressing their customers “the way we live and work today.” (7)
Functionality, clean lines, simplicity, equality, tradition.
Gundtoft attributes this “distinctive aesthetic” to “once-dominant agricultural and fishing societies, which contributed to the clean lines and the emphasis on craftsmanship and practicality, with a palette of light tones that contrasted with the darker, richer colors of southern Europe.” (6) Her short introduction prepares the reader through thoughtful causal historical themes that lead to the main content: interviews with more than fifty designers raised in, and mostly based in, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Iceland. These are designers the author admires, who represent and personify current Scandinavian fashion. Big, classic companies such as J. Lindeberg and Marimekko are included, as well as smaller and/or independent designers such as Libertine-Libertine and “conceptual” designers such as Moonspoon Saloon and Vilsbøl de Arce.
Images chosen by Henrik Vibskov to illustrate his interview in “Fashion Scandinavia” by Dorothea Gundtoft, 2013.
The book is a collection of interviews or descriptions of the brands conducted and created by the author, usually about ten or fifteen questions or short paragraphs; the author asks a question in underlined bold, the answer is given in plain text. Acne was the only brand to not participate even through a PR or Marketing manager; shame on them.
Significantly, the designers or their people were responsible for choosing the accompanying photographs, “to best present and explain their particular universe.” (6) I was glad to read that after paging through the book a few times and wondering generally how the history of fashion is written. Gundtoft has lived in Andalusia and Copenhagen, Paris, New York, and London; she is both an insider in all of those places but must have only grown up in one. Is the best fashion history (or future) written by an “insider,” and what makes one so? That the designers may present themselves visually here is significant, giving them the agency that so many critics, commentators, and fashion historians do not. Both approaches are useful, but this collaboration feels fresh, although subtle.
Images chosen by Silas Adler of Soulland to be included with his interview in “Fashion Scandinavia” by Dorothea Gundtoft, 2013.
Fashion Scandinavia actually makes the reader contemplate how to define “Scandinavian” or “Swedish,” despite the declarative title. Some of the subjects, like Silas Adler of Soulland, grew up in one country (Sweden) but calls another home, both personally and professionally (Denmark). Many of the designers went to prestigious Central St. Martins in London; is there a latent Englishness to their designs from years living there? Is it the head designer’s childhood home that marks the person/brand as Scandinavian, the location of its first/biggest storefront/studio? Or are the themes and values that Gundtoft uses as her red thread to connect the subjects of this book the most important key to Scandinavianness? One of the first questions Gundtoft asks in each interview is, “Tell me about your upbringing” and she is sure to ask why a designer prefers a London studio to a Copenhagen location, or why one moved away from Norway to Paris.
Graphic layout of each entry in “Fashion Scandinavia” by Dorothea Gundtoft, 2013.
The questions and answers, while short (they take up no more than two or three pages, interspersed with photographs), inspire further rumination on the role of location, identity, and local vs. global brands. It is evident that by grouping designers from five different countries into one “Scandinavia” is a compliment, and “Scandinavian” is seen as a positive niche that connotes the values stated in her introduction. Sweden and Denmark are most often represented here, and Iceland, with only three designers included, surely benefits from association with those countries known for more than their intricate, bulky sweaters.
Gundtoft set out to give readers a look into the current state of Scandinavian fashion, and urges readers to continue to look for the new, the worthwhile, the local, the unique. Many books are written about up-and-coming designers, but I’m always glad to see more press for Scandinavia. I’ve read a few books collecting new Swedish designers, but the inclusion of “all” the Scandinavian countries in one volume is a welcome approach, and makes for interesting compare/contrast. This is definitely not an in-depth or theoretically challenging discussion of Scandinavian fashion, but rather an entrée into fashion’s northern frontier.
Lead Photo: Cover of Fashion Scandinavia, by Dorothea Gundtoft. Thames and Hudson, 2013.
Find more Book Reviews on Worn Through here!
Carelli, Peter, Lena Wilhelmsson, and Cay Bond. In Fashion: new Swedish clothing design. Helsingborg: Dunkers Kulturhus, 2005.
Falk, Karin. Det svenska modeundret. Stockholm: Norstedts, 2011.
Sommar, Ingrid. Scandinavian Style: classic and modern Scandinavian design. London: Carlton, 2007.
Spandet-Møller, Henrik. Danish Fashion Going Global. Hellerup: HSMH Holding, 2011.