Book Review – …isms: Understanding Fashion


…isms: Understanding Fashion is a guide to Western fashion practices over the past several centuries by Mairi Mackenzie, a specialist in Cultural and Historical Studies at The London College of Fashion. The book envisions fashion through the iconic figures and sociopolitical circumstances that influenced the trends and anti-trends in costume over the years.

Organizationally, it is structured like a travel guide or a text-book. A “How to use this book” section introduces the hokey, yet useful icons in each section to delineate material such as “Introduction,” “Key Words”, “See Also” (related practices), and “Don’t see” (contrary practices). A preference for flowing text led me to regularly skip to the “Main Definition” of every ism. Despite its engagement with the format of a User’s Manual, the main content flows with an engaging readability that is impressive for a reference book.

Mackenzie skillfully distills the several hundred years of fashion into concise descriptions of specific aesthetics and influences. The book is arranged by century starting with the 17th and 18th Centuries. The evolution and decline of Baroque and Rococo fashions are examined as the direct result of a changing socioeconomic climate in 17th Century France. While clothing was once a statement of privilege, the egalitarianism of the French Revolution led to the decline of fanciful fashion by the end of the 18th Century.

In the 19th Century, the technological advancements of the Industrial Revolution enabled a burgeoning middle class that imposed stricter social etiquettes. Mackenzie explores the ways in which codes of class and gender were presented in fashion, focusing in particular upon how women’s clothing became more physically restrictive as a direct reflection of women’s constricted place in society.

The world of fashion diversified in the 20th century as media and industry proliferated. Between looser social codes and the emergence of textile mass production came a fashion that was aesthetically more practical than elegant. With fashion’s greater accessibility, clothing came to function more as statement rather than mere garments. A visual commentary on the social, political, and economic was developing, and this discourse was being worn.

Mackenzie leaves us with a brief examination of the 21st Century, when fashion is powerfully affected by that great empire of information exchange, the Internet, and the increasing global accessibility and interchange of goods. With fewer and fewer borders to cultural knowledge and material goods themselves, it seems that modern fashion is the result of converging social, political, ecological, and aesthetic influences from all over the world.

…isms: Understanding Fashion is an excellent point of reference for many of fashion’s separate yet entwined, and convoluted yet accessible histories. It does precisely what it intends to do; Mairi Mackenzie achieves a tangible overview to the history of fashion, and delivers it with a generally unbiased take on the historical, social, and political influences in fashion.

You won’t be debating fashion concepts and influences amongst aficionados out of the breadth of this book. However, you will discover the basis of certain practices that will plant the right amount of intrigue to take you to the library, bookstore, or World Wide Web where you can explore these “isms” further. And then you can debate.

…Isms: Understanding Fashion, by Mairi Mackenzie, Iqon Editions Limited, 2009
Reviewed by Jennifer Carroll

2 thoughts on “Book Review – …isms: Understanding Fashion

  1. This book looks pretty cool. I always feel like I could stand a bit more structure in my general knowledge of fashion and this seems like it might provide some of that generalness.

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