Book Review: The History of Modern Fashion

Caroline M for blog

MAFS student Caroline Mccauley

Historical studies are often justified by the somewhat trite saying of you have to understand the past to know the present. Although, how connected is the present to the past? Is there a linear narrative between the past and the present? Do we mistake ideas as inherently modern that can be found in the past?

The History of Modern Fashion: From 1850 to 2010 by James Cole and Nancy Deihl suggests that history, specifically fashion history, should not be lost in the past as it uncannily embodies the present. In their book, Cole and Deihl dispel the notion that fashions before the twenty first century are outworn. For example, the book reveals how the so-called “modern” celebrity designer and fashion system were actually present in the nineteenth century. Even the notion of celebrity culture driving fashion trends is not as exclusively modern, as we may think; Cole and Deihl write “the same mechanism was well in place in the late 19th century, such as Princess Alexandra’s contribution to the acceptance of tailored ensembles for women” (10) Not only does the book depict how intertwined and inextricable fashion history is from modern fashion, but it also shows how fashion is a force that saturates culture. The History of Modern Fashion charts the intersection of fashion with other cultural phenomenon, noting how fashions signify social, political, and economical shifts. It appears that fashions can even define and epitomize a specific era or decade; when accessing the history of fashion, Cole and Deihl discovered that there is “a spirit that prevails through each decade” (10).

In The History of Modern Fashion, each decade’s distinct spirit from 1850s-2000s is characterized in thirteen separate chapters. The ethos of the decade is expressed in the telling titles of each chapter, such as “The 1890s: ‘Extremes of the Gilded Age,’” “The 1950s: ‘Couture Opulence, Suburban Style,’” and “The 1980s: ‘Power Dressing and Postmodernism.’” The chapters are divided into sections that both resonate with other decades and are indicative of the individual decade. Sections such as “social and economic background,” “the arts,” and “fashion media” are included in every decade’s chapter, pointing to how fashion is embedded in culture and reflective of a decade’s social values. Certain movements, events, or ideologies that are idiosyncratic of a decade are specified in sections like “La Garconne and the Flapper,” “The Diana Phenomenon,” and “Heroin Chic in Subcultures and Supermodels.” The expressive titles and chapters make it easy to discern each decade’s fashion identity that inevitably shapes and is shaped by socio-economic factors and cultural constructions.

To further illustrate each decade’s fashion persona, the book is decorated with art, editorial photographs, advertisements, sketches, magazine covers, film stills, and newspaper clippings. For instance an advertisement with the slogan “The new Cleopatra Look as only Revlon does it” is placed next to a discussion of the effects of film on fashion and beauty advertisements, with a caption of “the impact of the 1963 film Cleopatra extended to make-up, such as Revlon’s promotion of ‘Sphinx Pink’ lipstick (297). Noteworthy genres of film or literature, celebrity figures, or art movements related to fashion are elaborated on in detailed aside captions and pages. For instance, the Countess Di Castiglione, considered one the most beautiful women of the nineteenth century, is given her own page. In a discussion of the reputed 400 photographs that Castiglione had taken of herself, Cole and Deihl write, “Consciously documenting her appearance for posterity, she [Castiglione] understood the power of photography as a means of manipulating her image as a celebrity” (21) Throughout the book, Cole and Deihl provide a multitude of cases and examples of why fashion history cannot simply be conceived as “old-fashioned.” The History of Modern Fashion: From 1850 to 2010 uncovers that the history of fashion is not obsolete as what we consider “modern fashion” is found in the past. Indeed, the force of fashion transcends time, possibly to the extent that it is eternally present.

By Caroline Mccauley

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