Book Ends: Our (Slightly Belated) 2011 Literary Review

Readers of Worn are known to geek out not only over clothes, but over books as well. Though we’ve already started collectively consuming a ton of books from 2012, we’re still not quite done discussing our favourite reads from last year. To expand the conversation, we asked some of our favourite fashion nerds to share with us the best books they read in 2011.

Nathalie Atkinson, National Post Style Editor
Searching for Beauty, by Cherie Burns

Generally, biographies of the idle rich are to be avoided, but I make an exception for Millicent Rogers. I’d been curious about the Standard Oil heiress for years (her grandfather Henry was in business with John D. Rockefeller), but until Cherie Burns’ Searching for Beauty (St. Martin’s Press) there had been virtually no original biographical research about this late great dame of American fashion (who died at 51, too young, in 1953). I’m forever having a 1920s and 1930s moment (what I would give to have lived back then!) and took Burns’ book on holiday in August, pairing it with two other complementary reads: Flapper, Joshua Zeitz’s superb historical and fashion survey of the first modern women of the first modern decade, and lexicographer-slash-dress-blogger Erin McKean’s whimsical and breezy novel The Secret Lives of Dresses, which concerns the fictional stories of vintage dresses in a boutique.

I didn’t come up for air until the last page. Eccentric high society clotheshorses seem ubiquitous today, but in the late teens and 1920s, Rogers was an original. Astute about clothes, she was ridiculously wealthy but rebellious, and did things her own way—for example, she wore Patou to her coming-out debutante ball at the New York Ritz and made several loopy costume changes thoughout the night. She later became the patron and muse of London couturier Charles James’s classic American evening gown look, and had romantic conquests (Cary Grant!), but instead of following the prevailing fads she remained true to her own style – rather than merely the good little clothes hanger for the designers of the day that so many boldface socialites and celebrities are today. With a closet bulging with Mainbocher, Lanvin and Valentina mixed with the anonymous finds of her far-flung travels, Rogers’s confident and idiosyncratic style choices regularly inspired her friend Diana Vreeland: she went from Tyrol to hippie-chic eclectic and is the originator of the all-American, preppy-Southwest hybrid look that has become Ralph Lauren’s signature. In the 1940s, she moved to the mountains of New Mexico, to Taos, and designed huge, beautiful jewellery that mixed turquoise with diamonds, and wore it as knights did armour—often elbow to fingertip. Rogers left behind this and an important art collection, too—thousands of Southwest artifacts and American Indian jewellery. As fits the under-hyped style icon, she’s buried in an Apache dress by Elsa Schiaparelli.

Randi Bergman, FASHION Magazine, The Katie Girls
Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, Lisa Vreeland

I loved Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel as much for its visual splendour as its personal twist. Edited by the wife of the famed editrix’s grandson turned most ardent admirer, Lisa Immordino Vreeland, the book is not only a compilation of her best work, but a journey through the mind of a genius, from her not so humble beginnings to her trumpeted end. I loved the juxtapositions of some of her more famous work (like Dovima with Elephants) with some of her earlier work found in personal archives, like a George Hoyningen-Huene shot of a woman all in red, complete with cigarette holder, pearls, and turban, from Bazaar in 1939. I also loved the bits of art history that obviously foreshadowed her tenure at the Met, Irving Penn’s shots of Georgia O’Keefe from a 1970 Vogue, and Cecil Beaton’s Man Ray-ish shot of Marjorie Wilson from her book Allure.

What I love more than the images are the little tidbits that I learned when speaking to Lisa, like the fact that Vreeland came from a privileged family so she didn’t need to work, but that her mother always made her feel like an ugly duckling, which made her strive for something more than resting on her laurels. Given all of the personal access that Vreeland had, I would have liked to have seen more personal artifacts, like letters and postcards, because I always love that stuff, but I guess this was meant to be more of a visual tome. And that, it certainly is.

Monica Sklar, Worn Through
Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrl Revolution by Sara Marcus

I completed my PhD in Design-Apparel Studies in November 2010 and hope to start back to work in Fall 2012, so I’ve been on a very rare hiatus (for me) from reading fashion books. However, I am working on writing my own book on fashion, punk style to be specific, and so much of what I have been reading relates to that research. My favorite book of the year on that topic was Girls to the Front by Sara Marcus. I was completely engrossed in this historical account of the ‘90s subcultural movement. Marcus paints vivid pictures not only of the individuals, events and emotions of the period, but includes many facts about body image, dress style, fashion leaders, and visual image development that were pertinent to the time. Everything from writing with Sharpies on the body to baby barrettes, cat eye glasses, and issues of being “pretty” are explored and put in context against not only the mainstream, but also other facets of punk and subculture. I was impressed with Marcus’s attention to detail, thoughtful prose, and obviously exhaustive research. It was refreshing that the inclusions of dress concepts were not afterthoughts, but were important aspects of the text. And personally, it helped me better understand a stylistic genre I lived through and participated in, but for which I didn’t necessarily know all of the origin stories.

Anita Clarke, I Want I Got
The Banana Republic Guide to Travel and Safari Clothing, Mel Ziegler

My fashion favourite book for 2011 is one I discovered through Philip Sparks. I have a real fetish for military uniform and fashion inspired by it. This book dedicates itself to the history of travel and safari clothing, and combines history, personal stories, illustrations, and a fashion glossary. You have traveler stories from actors, military figures, and other notables sitting alongside descriptions of items like the safari jacket, which are beautifully illustrated. It’s easy to read from cover to cover, or you can use it like a research book and look up specific items. If you are lover of fashion history and military inspiration, I believe you’ll love this book like I did.

Sarah Nicole Prickett, Toronto Standard Style Editor
My Dear Bomb, Yohji Yamamoto

I would bet my Charlotte Olympias that literary people know less about fashion than fashion people do about literature. It’s becoming something of a shame. Yohji Yamamoto’s biography—a small, dense, slowly explosive book that reads more like plotless literary memoir, or poetry—should have been in the New York Times Book Review. Or at least on The Millions. There is no better argument for clothing as serious pleasure, as protection, as salvation. “Fashion sighs after trends,” writes Yamamoto (or rather, writes his co-author, Ai Mitsuda). “I want timeless elegance. Fashion has no time. I do. I say: Hello Lady, how can I help you? … It is more about helping women to suffer less, to attain more freedom and independence.” This book made me adore Yamamoto. More importantly, it made me think about perfection, failure, art, modernity, feminism, and desire. I couldn’t ask more of the greatest American novel.

What was your best fashion read in 2011?

photo by Alyssa K. Faoro for issue 12

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