Posts Tagged ‘fashion book review’

Patricia Field. NYC Fashion Week 2019. Photo: Tina Paul.

I’m disappointed with the trend of sweatpants and sneakers. I mean, come on! I feel it’s not that interesting. Now everyone’s walking around looking like that. It shows no sense of originality. Yes, it’s comfortable. I like sweatpants when I’m in my apartment. But I wouldn’t go out in Paris in a pair of sweatpants. And that happened to me in Paris! When I first went there to do “Emily,” I sent (creator) Darren Star, “I’m in here in Paris. I’m going to check out the French chic.” I do my little routine, go outside. They’re all in sneakers, jeans and sweatpants! I’m like, This is depressing. I want the French chic, damn it!

Patricia Field – American costume designer/stylist.

How sad is that? Paris, historically the city of elegant style, is now awash in sweats and jeans.

This quote is from Pat in the City: My Life of Fashion, Style, and Breaking All the Rules (Dey Street Books).

Check back tomorrow for my review of this fascinating fashion memoir.

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Here’s a little story about how I found My Mrs. Brown: A month or so ago I was at my public library looking in the Fiction section for George Orwell’s novel, 1984. Affected by the current state of the world, I had an unexplainable desire to reread this dystopian classic. To my surprise there were no copies on the shelf. (Were other readers of the same mind?) So, I perused the other titles nearby and I swear this smaller-than-average blue book popped off the shelf and into my hands. My heart beat a little faster as I looked at an illustration of a dress form on the cover. Could it be? Might I have stumbled upon fashion in fiction? Indeed I had!

It’s rare to find fashion in fiction and My Mrs. Brown, written by former Vogue editor William Norwich, is a treat for its fashion detail among other things.

Middle-aged Mrs. Brown lives a modest life in a small town in Rhode Island. When she volunteers to help inventory the belongings of the town’s recently deceased Grand Dame, she comes upon a black dress suit (a dress with a matching jacket) that will change her life. The simple but exquisite suit was designed by Oscar de la Renta and once she set her eyes it she was captivated. After reading the novel Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, the story of a woman quite like our heroine who travels to Paris to buy herself a Dior gown, Mrs. Brown is inspired to travel to NYC and buy her own dress suit by Oscar de la Renta. Never mind that it cost thousands of dollars that she doesn’t have. Where there’s a will (and many good Samaritans) there’s a way.

My Mrs. Brown is described as a fairy tale. I call it a quiet story. There are no superheroes fighting off violent villains, no crass language, no drug-addiction. There is no darkness, although, there is timeless reality such as sadness, jealousy, and death. We also have (oh my gosh!) pleasant characters, a charming story of persistence and courage, and a nod to the everyday woman with a reasonable desire to own something lovely and stylish. Mr. Norwich creates a nostalgic small town with a main street and residents who actually know each other and spend time together. It has such an old-school vibe that I had to remind myself more than once that this was a story set in present day and I wondered if the author was hinting of a certain provincial quality to New England. But this sleepy Rhode Island town is also a handy contrast to hectic New York City, which is featured in the later part of the book.

As for fashion detail, Mr. Norwich seamlessly weaves in details of clothing, style, and the lifestyle of those in the biz. He knows the world of fashion and pulls it in as part of the story, but at just the right balance. For someone like me, that’s candy! Dark chocolate See’s candy.

I truly enjoyed My Mrs. Brown and the opportunity it allowed me to escape our increasingly uncivilized world and step into an uplifting story where a quiet, unassuming character is the winner.

We need more books like this.

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Photo: Charles Tracy

I’d learned to tailor from my mom, and that coat, with its forest-green satin lining, was our masterpiece. We defied any fashion-conscious person not to fall in love with it. Mom had taught me that when it comes to clothes, there’s no such think as timidity. The point is to show yourself off. My mom and my aunt had always done that; now it was my turn. If I could get people to love the clothes I made, then maybe my mom and aunt could have the fashion house they’d always fantasized about, like the ones my aunt saw when she was in Paris.

Pat Cleveland, American model.

This quote is from Ms. Cleveland’s memoir, Walking with the Muses (Atria Books), written by Ms. Cleveland with Lorraine Glennon.

These past few months I’ve been reading a lot of fiction, but my first love is biographies/memoirs, particularly of people in the fashion business. I had heard about Ms. Cleveland’s memoir on the fashion podcast Dressed. (If you don’t know about Dressed, you want to.)

Check back on Wednesday for my review of Walking with the Muses.

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When I was taking a fashion history course earlier this year, I was determined to avoid the Internet for any research I had to do. Why? Because I prefer books and thanks to the many fashion history books I’ve collected over the years, it was easy to keep the promise I made to myself.

One book I didn’t own (and it would have been quite handy) is 100 Years of Fashion by Cally Blackman (Laurence King Publishing, 2020).

Blackman, a fashion historian, university lecturer, and author, digs into fashion history from 1900 to circa 2000. She discusses high society, the everyday lady, designers, and all the trends from the S-Bend silhouette to Grunge.

The book is divided into two sections: 1901-1959 and 1960 onward, making the subject accessible for the serious student and the casual fashion admirer. Both sections include an overview of the fashion trends of each decade and the historical context for those trends. A complete index makes for quick and easy research.

Another reason I prefer fashion books to a search on the Internet is I can more easily study the provided photos. Similar to an exhibition catalogue the bulk of 100 Years of Fashion is photos and illustrations with captions. The over 400 images provide a visual documentation of twentieth century fashion history. Such examples are essential for fashion study, not to mention the eye candy factor.

The compact size of the book makes it a great choice to take on the road if attending a fashion conference or traveling to take a course (yes, one day the pandemic will be over).

I noticed while researching various fashion history topics that each book I went to offered a little different angle, giving me a more complete understanding. In other words, you cannot own too many books on fashion!

Books are on everyone’s gift list this year and 100 Years of Fashion is an excellent choice for anyone interested in fashion. Support your local independent book store! Most will special order whatever title you’re looking for.

Let the holiday shopping begin.

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Revised Cover - In the Name of GucciI just finished reading – In the Name of Gucci: A Memoir, by Patricia Gucci, (Crown Archetype, 2016).

Gucci is still around but do you remember the brand in its heyday? You might be conjuring up images of the iconic red and green stripe or the double G logo.

Gucci began in 1921 but by the 1950s it had become THE luxury fashion brand on everyone’s must-have list. The family-run business continued to soar in popularity around the world until 1989 when it was sold to Investcorp.

In her memoir, Patricia, the love child of Aldo Gucci and his mistress Bruna, shares for the first time the compelling and complicated story of her parents, the Gucci family, and the history of the status brand, which was the first Italian company to open retail shops in the U.S. prompting the Made In Italy phenomenon.

When Patricia was born in 1963, her father was middle-aged, the head of (and powerhouse behind) Gucci as well as a married man with three sons. Her mother was 32 years his junior and a former employee of the Gucci shop in Rome. The couple kept their relationship and their daughter a secret … for as long as they could.

Did I mention it’s complicated?

Well, it is and I tip my hat to Patricia and co-writer Wendy Holden for their excellent crafting. The authors successfully keep clear for the reader all the various elements to the  story, which begins in 1897 with Patricia’s grandfather. At 16 Guccio immigrated from his small Italian village to London to work as a page for the Savoy Hotel. After returning to Italy several years later Guccio opened a luggage shop in Florence, which was to eventually become the Gucci we think of today.

A man of impeccable taste, my grandfather hoped to create the kind of superior leather goods he’d been handling since he was a boy, only using cheaper hides enhanced by skilled dyeing and treating techniques. His own elegant designs based loosely on English tailoring and style were pieced together by Florentine craftsmen with their eye for detail. Each new item carried the first Gucci monogram – a tiny image of a young page in full livery and a cap carrying a suitcase in one hand and Gladstone bag in the other. It was my grandfather’s nod to his formative days.

There is so much to this memoir – a love affair, the rise and fall of a fashion brand, secrets and family betrayal. It’s an operatic story for sure but Patricia doesn’t take advantage of that; she simply tells it like it was. Although her affection for her father, who died in 1990, comes through she remains honest and does a nice job balancing her emotions.

Relationships can be tricky to navigate. Those we have with our parents can be the most complicated and often require compromises once we come to the realization that none of us live in a perfect world and that the people we love are flawed.

I enjoyed most reading about the history of the company and Patricia’s later involvement as a spokesperson, model, and board member. Indeed she was the first female board member in the company’s 90 year history. I am curious about who was designing for the brand during Aldo’s reign. Who for example came up with the Jackie O handbag?

It’s been thirty years since the sale of Gucci and 26 since Aldo died. Why a memoir now? Patricia was under a gag order for ten years after the sale but beyond that, she never really knew the whole story between her parents. Any time she asked her mother for details, she was shut down. Until 2009, when Bruna unexpectedly opened up and handed over a stack of Aldo’s love letters written while the couple were secretly courting. That was the beginning of In the Name of Gucci.

I became so captivated by this book that time flew by unnoticed. I didn’t want to put it down and I didn’t want it to end.

It can’t get any better than that.

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Image courtesy of Basic Books.

Image courtesy of Basic Books.

Linda Przybyszewski is a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame as well as an author and an award-winning seamstress. In her book The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish  (Basic Books, 2014) she discusses what she calls the Dress Doctors, women in the first half of the twentieth century who taught young girls and women how to dress well. In Home Economics classes and women’s clubs, in magazines and on the radio, the Dress Doctors, armed with basic fashion knowledge and some serious sewing skills, imparted their wisdom on what was appropriate attire for home, school, work, daytime and evening.

Ms. Przybyszewski became interested in these remarkable women when she stumbled upon a 1950s Home Economics textbook in a used bookstore. Clothes for You taught that beauty in dress is achieved by applying the five principles of art to clothing. In other words, when creating an outfit one should keep in mind – harmony, rhythm, balance, proportion, and emphasis.  Ms. Przybyszewski writes: The art principles capture truths sensed even by people who have never heard of them … For any woman who has realized that a certain outfit looks terrific, the principles will tell her why it does.

Intrigued, Ms. Przybyszewski went on to search for other books on the subject and discovered a whole movement in dressing well headed by the Dress Doctors –  accomplished women who were teachers, authors, and saleswomen – and supported by the USDA and the WPA. Young girls and women in cities or working the farm were taught how to sew as well how to be thrifty about fashion (farm women learned how to make dresses from feed bags, which came in surprisingly attractive fabrics). Following the guidance of the Dress Doctors everyone could and did look their very best.

At a recent reading in San Francisco Ms. Przybyszewski commented that while collecting and reading over 700 pamphlets written by the Dress Doctors and published by Bureau of Home Economics (a subdivision of the USDA) she started to recognize that these women had good ideas. “… they knew some valuable things,” she explained. “Things that have been lost and things that I hope to bring back to American culture by writing this book.”

Dense with information yet accessible, The Lost Art of Dress takes readers on the most interesting of adventures describing the rise of the Dress Doctors at the turn of the twentieth century and their eventual decline in the 1960s (due to casual-wear in the suburbs, the youth craze, and designers’ simplification of their fashions). In addition to discussing the women themselves,  Ms. Przybyszewski goes into great detail about what they taught including a description of the five art principles and appropriate dress for occasions. A nice addition to the text are quite a lot of illustrations, a rarity in books these days. The Lost Art of Dress is a useful history of 20th century American fashion, making it required reading for all fashion design students.


It was a pleasure to meet Linda Przybyszewski at Book Passage in SF. I wonder what the Dress Docs would think of my outfit.

I really enjoyed The Lost Art of Dress and I recommend it to anyone interested in fashion history, vintage fashions, and women’s history. Although one may not subscribe to everything the Dress Doctors had to say, there is still much to learn from them and apply to our modern fashion sense. What these women were doing and how they influenced society is quite impressive and worth knowing.







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Image courtesy of Schiffer Publishing.

Image courtesy of Schiffer Publishing.

We ladies love our hats. Well, at least some of us in the 21st century do. But in times past most women enjoyed sporting a handsome hat and even if they didn’t, the proper chapeau was an essential element to a well-conceived ensemble. Everyone wore a hat, ladies and gentlemen alike.

For modern-day hat gals, Schiffer Publishing has just come out with Decades of Hats, 1900s to the 1970s, by Sue Nightingale. A handy reference book, Decades of Hats opens with an introduction by Ms. Nightingale, an avid vintage clothing collector, offering a brief overview of women’s hat history – trends over the decades and what societal events influenced the trends. That’s most of the text, the bulk of the book is reprinted illustrations of hats with descriptions from catalogues and magazine ads.

A serious hat enthusiast could spend quite some time on each page poring over illustrations of bonnets, cloches, caps and pills. Something interesting that I noticed was that the beret hit the scene in the 1920s and shows up in every decade after (the beret is a mainstay for me). Decades of Hats is also a useful guide for costumers and folks who like to dress up for period events. Flip to the right chapter and discover numerable examples of what was worn when. Milliners and designers will find great inspiration from studying the illustrations, and fashion history buffs would reach for this book repeatedly.

Decades of Hats, 1900s to the 1970s by Sue Nightingale is a welcome addition to any fashionable’s collection.

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Caroline-CharlesBritish fashion designer Caroline Charles is called The Thinking Woman’s Designer for her smart styles – classic yet feminine yet chic. After 50 years in the business, Ms. Charles is as popular now as she was back in the Swinging Sixties when she hobnobbed with the likes of Mary Quant and Mick Jagger.

Over the years, in addition to creating her own line Ms. Charles has been a design consultant for brands such as Burberry and Marks & Spencer. In 2002 she received a OBE  for her services to British fashion.

To mark five decades in the business the successful designer has published a book, Caroline Charles: 50 Years in Fashion (ACC Editions, 2012). Full of diary entries, press clippings, and photos this memoir is a unique peek into the fashion world of the 1960s through today.

Ms. Charles got her start in 1963 when as a young London designer she was invited on a Pop-Tour of America. Twenty-four cities in one month with pop rock bands, dancers, and models showing up at department stores to give a fashion show.  

The stores were massive and the shows were exciting … at the end the audience would get up on the catwalk and join the models, the band playing on, the go-go girls with fishnet tights in their cages … They loved the music and the clothes, which were by their standards short and unconventional – little shifts rather than the shirtwaisters they were used to, short hair rather than pony tails.

Ms. Charles succinctly describes her business happenings for each decade, 1960s right up to today and there’s a Q&A with fashion writer Ian R. Webb. Her stories are compelling as are the photos. Almost for me the best part, the images are informative, inspirational and an excellent documentation of silhouettes and styles for the past 50 years. I enjoy flipping through the pages studying them (and wishing I had lived in Swinging London).

I say Ms. Charles’ memoir is another must-have for anyone interested in fashion history.

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Image courtesy of Viking Press.

Image courtesy of Viking Press.

Author and stylist Stacy London starts off her latest book The Truth About Style (Viking, 2012) telling her readers what her book is not. It’s not a fashion how-to, but more of a why we have the style problems we have and what can be done to fix them. Here’s what Ms. London has to say:

We all put obstacles in our own path toward personal style, myself included. If we understood why we constructed these practical and emotional obstacles, we might move beyond them to healthier, happier perceptions of ourselves and, ideally, a better sense of self-esteem. Style can change your look, certainly, but it can also change your life.

In The Truth About Style Ms. London profiles nine women who are in fashion ruts- with-a-cause. For example, 19-year-old Ashley had developed an eating disorder after a romantic break-up and with the weight gain she lost her sense of style. Ms. London identified Ashley’s underlining cause as: emotional strength sapped by two years of an eating disorder.  At age 57, June was having a hard time shifting from a youthful look to something more mature. Her underlining causes according to Ms. London: facing getting older, frustration with fewer shopping options for women her age, and mourning the end of cute.

After identifying each cause, Ms. London moves on to helping these women see themselves differently by putting together chic and appropriate looks just like she does with co-host Clinton Kelly on the popular television show What Not to Wear. The book is loaded with before and after photos as well as a discussion about why her choices work.

What makes The Truth About Style different from other fashion guides is that Ms. London delves into some of the reasons behind style ruts, much like Suzie Orman does for financial issues. Additionally, she discusses her own life facing psoriasis as a child, an eating disorder, and life as a forty-something single woman.

Ms. London’s writing style is professional and succinct, although her constant attempt to be humorous and parenthetical asides are distracting. Still, I enjoyed the read and would recommend it to women who are looking for some style assistance as well as design students, who could learn a lot from this book about what fashions work for real women.

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Every fashion enthusiast from designer to collector must own at least one reference book on clothing history. I have several but nothing that quite matches the breadth of information contained in  Fashion: The Definitive History of Style and Costume (DK Publishing, 2012).

Definitive is the word for this book as it traces 3000 years of men’s and women’s clothing. Each of the ten chapters  includes:

  • timeline
  • highlights of social and political issues that influenced fashion
  • detailed descriptions of trends
  • features on fashion icons of each period
  • discussion of top designers
  • and of course, lots of illustrations

Additionally there is a quick reference section with pictures, a glossary, and an index.

I am most impressed with Consultant Editor Susan Brown who made sure to discuss subtle changes in fashion from year to year as well as organize an amazing amount of information into a manageable format. What a helpful resource to have at hand when researching a period, looking for inspiration, or to just gaze at the eye-candy.

Fashion: The Definitive History of Style & Costume is a bargain at $50, but I have to point out that it’s printed and bound in China. Having said that, the quality of the paper, print, and binding is excellent. I say a perfect holiday gift for your favorite fashionable.

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