I’ve been interested in fashion since I first picked out a pair of red shoes when I was four years old. A few posts ago, I wrote about Tim Gunn’s Fashion Bible. Another new book on the topic is Fashion: The Definitive History of Costume and Style. This is literally a weighty tome, at 6 pounds, and it was put together by a rather weighty authority, the Smithsonian Institute. The 480 pages are divided into chapters by historical periods from “Prehistory” to “1980 and Onward.” While the Gunn book was mostly text with carefully selected photos, Fashion has thousands of color photos and illustrations and just a little text.
There’s plenty to interest the Francophile. The book spotlights French “fashion icons” as diverse as Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henrietta Maria, the daughter of Henri IV and Marie de Médici, and Marie Antoinette. And there’s plenty of focus on designers who were French or moved to the fashion capital of Paris, as well as on their major contributions, such as Charles Worth, Paul Poiret, Coco Chanel, Madame Grès, Elsa Schiaparelli, Cristobal Balenciaga, Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, and Jean Paul Gaultier.
I learned a lot. For instance, I didn’t know that in the 12th century, Paris was considered to be a dull town. When Eleanor of Aquitaine married Louis VII, she brought with her all sorts of innovations from the southwest, including makeup, elaborate clothing, and the arts. She was the Middle Ages equivalent of Princess Diana, the way she shook up Court life.
I didn’t know that Marie-Antoinette ditched skirts for trousers when she learned how to ride horse-back. No demure side-saddle for her! Of course, her love of fashion brought immense criticism down on her. When she was executed, she wore a brand-new white chemise that she had saved for the occasion. It brings new meaning to being a fashion victim.
I learned what a “calash” was. To protect the huge hair-styles that Marie Antoinette popularized, women wore a type of super-sized bonnet. As the book explains: “Usually made of fine silk stretched over hoods made of cane, wood, or whalebone, the calash folded away concertina-style when not in use” (146).
Today’s expression, abréger une histoire (ab-ray-zjay oon eestwar) means “to abbreviate a story,” but it’s used to mean “to make a long story short.” It’s pretty hard to make a story that covers 3,000 years of fashion history short – or light, for that matter. But it does make for an interesting read.
- Chanel’s Punk Marie Antoinette (sothisisjenny.wordpress.com)