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.
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.