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.
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