Life as the textile expert at a regional history museum

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Five Stages of Reading Bad Fashion History

About a year ago I was asked to review books for a publication called Choice, which is used by college and university librarians to pick books for their shelves. I don't get paid, but I get to keep the book they send me to review. So, every few months I get an email that is like "Hey Clara, this hardcover edition of a book you wanted to buy anyway is in the mail right now." Awesome.

In addition to the concise 190-word review, I'm supposed to say if I recommend the book and for what academic level. This month, for the first time, I labeled a book "Not Recommended." Here is how it played out:

Stage 1: Excitement

Latest Book Has Arrived!!!

There are so many photos of actual surviving gowns!!!

Stage 2: Cause for Concern

"Poiret is credited with freeing women from corsets"
"[Vionnet is] credited with inventing the bias cut"
Ok, not technically incorrect (because you say "credited") but you are implying that those statements are true and are therefore perpetuating those myths. Fashion never happens in a vacuum, so a red flag goes up for me whenever a designer is said to have singlehandedly invented something. 

Oh dear. Did your editor take a nap?

Stage 3: Huh...I thought that...

"Despite the inevitable press coverage, there does not appear to be a surviving example [of Schiaparelli's Skeleton dress] and it would fetch six figures if discovered"
There is one at the V&A. To be fair, you have to scroll all the way down to the FIRST hit on Google, so I can see how you could miss it. 

"From 1963 [Lanvin] employed the Spanish couturier Antonio Castillo"
Just a few weeks prior, one of my volunteers discovered a wonderful Lanvin-Castillo dress in the MOHAI collection which was sold in the designer room at Frederick & Nelson. I read the line above and thought...hmm...wasn't that dress we found from the 1950s?

Turns out 1963 is the year Castillo left Lanvin. 

Stage 4: Horror

"In 1926 Coco launched the perfect backdrop for jewels, real or fake—the little black dress"
Any book/documentary that pulls out the 1926 Chanel LBD date instantly and irreparably looses credibility. 1926 was the year a particularly famous Chanel LBD appeared in Vogue, but as soon as you look at the evidence you find simple black dresses from Chanel and other designers long before 1926. In fact, this book, after citing the 1926 date, shows a 1924 LBD example on the very next page. For the love of Coco look at the evidence in front of you!!!

Stage 5: Gleeful Search For Other Errors

“Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto, and Issey Miyake – debuted in Paris in 1981” 
True of Kawakubo and Yamamoto, but Miyake had already shown in Paris by '81.

"The anti-fashion movement known as 'grunge' was a mismatched, layered look of denim jackets, granny-style floral dresses, low-waisted thong-revealing jeans, combat trousers..."
Britney Spears: Grunge Icon

Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't the low-waisted thong-reveal a late-90s/early 2000s trend? 

"At 1968's Woodstock..."
Ok, now you are just embarrassing yourself 

1 comment:

  1. This is almost exactly what happened when I found "The Complete History of Costume & Fashion" by Bronwyn Cogsgrave in my school library. Except "gleeful search for other errors" was replaced by "silent fuming and cursing the author for not quoting ANY of her sources, not providing any information on the illustrations, not using proper terminology, and making painfully obvious factual errors."
    First she said high heels originated in the 16th century, providing a full page illustration of a pair of high heeled boots. Then, in the next chapter, she says that high heels first appeared in the 17th century. She also referred to 18th century stays as "corsets" and said they were "lined in rough, unbleached cotton and stiffened with hoops of whalebone" Ugggh.
    Vintage Fashion and Couture sounds really horrible. I don't see how anyone could mess the facts up like that, even if they were writing from memory.