Bonnie English wants to teach you Fashion 101 (minus the student fees and late night study sessions) and she aims to “unravel the complications and contradictions behind stylistic change in order to chart the history of modern fashion.”
A senior lecturer in Art Theory at the Queensland College of Art, English has created a very respectable academic treatment of the last century of fashion. She begins her narrative with Louis XIV, predecessor of metrosexuals everywhere, and extends her analysis into globalized contemporary fashion, with everything from Comme des Garçons to Laura Ashley prints in between. What is most notable about the content of this volume is the way English handles her broad topic; there are some powerful fashion images in this book, but this is no pretty coffee table accessory. English selects unique subjects within fashion for each chapter and zeroes in to prevent a deluge of meaningless and broad historical summaries.
Exemplary are musings on Russian Dadaist visual artists and fashion designers Delaunay, Popova, and Stepanova. While they’re not an obvious point of interest within the history of costume, English creates a fashion tradition citing these women as Viktor and Rolf’s Neo-Dadaist forerunners, describing how they brought abstract designs into homes before abstract artists did. In short, English finds specific, and sometimes obscure, moments in dress, and writes her own fashion history canon.
The only real downside of the author’s scholarly style is that her astute dryness might be mistaken for condescension: she writes, “Perfume literally provides a touch of luxury to the mundane life of a middle-class consumer.” Her snooty phrasing is a minor sin, however, considering she pays tribute to the authors and inventors of even the most mundane paraphernalia; apparently my bean bag chair was designed by Gatti, Teodoro, and Paolini in 1968. As well, English makes some impressive connections by ascribing new meaning to common garments. For example, a t-shirt is aligned with “the quest to define ‘self’ amongst postmodernist youth culture.” Chanel is recognized for her methods “to achieve a greater ‘democratization’ of fashion” and Mary Quant’s mini-skirt is indicted as systematically “exclud[ing] older and larger women from being entirely fashionable.”
In A Cultural History of Fashion, English treats fashion as a thoughtful art form. She bases her book on the premise that, “arguably, all fashion is not art, but on occasion it can become art.” It is because of this stance that she can earnestly confront fashion as a deliberate act of design rather than a trendy accident… like jelly sandals. The triumph of the book is its ability to educate people about fashion in broad terms, infusing a renewed curiosity into this sometimes neglected or even dismissed scholarly discipline. I give it an A+.
A Cultural History of Fashion in the 20th Century by Bonnie English (Berg, 2007)
reviewed by Stephanie Herold.