Book Review: Dictionary of Fashion History

The most exciting part of all WORN staff meetings is when it’s time to assign the book reviews. Everyone sits up a little straighter, eyes the most coveted titles, sizes up their competition; it’s an office full of fashion nerds and the promise of a thick, educational book on an obscure area of fashion is tempting to all of us. Yet every so often it happens that a book will be held up and no one will jump to claim it. “Anyone?” our editor-in-pants will prod. Sometimes she’ll flip through it. “It looks really good, you guys,” she’ll say, and everyone will look around the room to see if anyone dares accept the challenge. I never turn down a challenge and so at the last meeting, I took the plunge. “Okay,” I said, “I’ll give it a try.”

As soon as I put The Dictionary of Fashion History in my bag I was positive I had made a mistake: I mean, a dictionary? My assignment was to write six hundred words on a literal dictionary. Just a collection of pages with words in alphabetical order and dry descriptions of each. There are barely any pictures, the five year old in me whined. I flipped through it once, twice, hoping to be hit with some sort of inspiration but nothing came except a particularly stubborn bout of procrastination.


I moved on to another WORN project that involved a trip to the reference library with a fellow Wornette. He dropped a huge pile of books in front of me. “Here’s the thing to remember,” he whispered, “Most of these books have the information we need on the fashion of the time. But I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that most books don’t even list fashion topics in their index.” I nodded emphatically because I do know firsthand how difficult it is to research a fashion-related topic; there is no lack of information, but most books deal with it as a second-class category, as though no one could possibly be writing a paper on something fashion related. If you’re very lucky they will acknowledge the topic of ‘grooming,’ but by and large academic historical texts treat it as an afterthought. “We’ve got to go through all of these books, page by page, to see if they’ve got what we’re looking for,” he finished, and we proceeded to starting flipping.

Boom—there it was—my inspiration. I immediately thought of how I had callously discarded The Dictionary of Fashion History. No, it might not be edge-of-your seat exciting, but this is a text that is unbelievably useful for fashion nerds. This is a second edition of sorts—the first was called A Dictionary of English Costume 900-1900 and as the title suggest, the scope was rather limited. The best parts of the original text were maintained, like keeping ‘drainpipe trousers’ under ‘D’ instead of ‘T’ for trousers, but the content was extended beyond the original time frame and updated to include definitions that are more everyday than strictly costume. When you need a succinct definition of the New Look, when you need the time period for the peasant skirt, or maybe when you get the urge to look up how a serious academic text such as this would define “heroin chic,” The Dictionary of Fashion History is the book that will be there for you in your time of need.

The Dictionary of Fashion History, by Valerie Cumming, Berg 2010
review by Haley Mlotek

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