Sunday, July 10, 2011

"The Anatomy of Fashion" by Susan J. Vincent

The problem with a lot of books written about the history of fashion by academics is that they tend to be too abstract - so caught up in the theory of fashion that they forget that ultimately they are talking about real garments that were once worn by real people.  Happily this is not the case with The anatomy of fashion: dressing the body from the Renaissance to today. The result is a book that is at once scholarly and immensely readable, and jam-packed with interesting facts.

Susan J. Vincent has chosen a novel method of exploring the history of fashionable dress in England from the 16th century until now: instead of tracing the story chronologically she comes at it anatomically.  Starting from the head and working her way down to the legs she discusses the various ways people of fashion have adorned and deformed different parts of their bodies (though oddly enough she stops short of the feet, leaving shoes and boots out of the picture altogether!)

As she tours the human body Vincent illustrates he story with examples from real life which gives us an idea of what it was actually like to wear the garments she describes.  For example, Pepys on the problems of maintaining wigs:
Further trouble arose in July 1664 when, unsurprisingly, he was annoyed at having to have a new wig, presumably made of lousy hair, cleansed of its nits; as it turned out, a perennial problem with Jervase's merchandise... For Pepys though, after nearly five years of 'keeping my perriwigs in good order' he hit on the happy notion of paying his barber a flat fee of 20 shillings a year to do it for him, so 'I am like to go very spruce, more than I used to do.'
Or popular views on wearing stays:
Even Lydia Becker, a radical campaigner for women's suffrage and education, thought corsets indispensable.  'Stick to your stays, ladies, and triumph over the opposite sex.'
Or the shock of women wearing the trousers:
In 1983, for most of us a time not from history but of lived experience, forty-year-old Mrs Jeanne Turnock was fired from a north London crematorium after wearing a trouser suit.  Mrs Turnock brought a case of unfair dismissal against her employers, telling an industrial tribunal that she had begun wearing a navy blue trouser suit because of the cold, particularly as her job included showing people around the crematorium grounds in all weathers.  The crematorium's manager, although he had 'no personal objection to women in trousers', said the garment was inappropriate in the context.  'We are dealing with elderly people recently bereaved and a large number may find some offence in a lady in trousers coming to deal with them.'  Despite there being no contractual obligation to dress in a particular way, the tribunal upheld the crematorium, unanimously deciding that 'the dismissal was fair'.
In brief, this is an excellent book which should be enjoyed by all intelligent readers interest in the social history of fashion.

Oxford: Berg, 2009
ISBN: 978 1845207649 (pbk)

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