Saturday, June 14, 2014

A Passion for Books About Fashion ... 4 Fabulous Non-Fiction Books

I love books and I love fashion so it's no surprise that I love books about fashion. Especially well written, beautifully illustrated books or books with beautiful photography...and most especially those books that are a bit quirky. 

I'm not talking about all books about fashion. I'm not really interested in buying or owning Trinny and Susanna's latest tome on how to dress your body or books like Clinton Kelly's about the top style mistakes women make. I'm sure these books have good style advice, but advice is not really what I'm after. What I want is to be able to experience vicariously the fashion world, or the fashion of an era that I love, through these books. 

I bought this memoir by Grace Coddington last year when it was featured in Keep It Chic, a blog I regularly read. I love Grace Coddington's sense of style and have been enjoying her work in Vogue for years. Her memoir of her long tenure in the fashion world is fascinating (she's over 70 now and she started as a teen-aged model.) The book is not great literature, for while Grace is an inspired fashion editor and a brilliant artist, she's not a writer.  Still, it's honestly written and fun to read. 

I kind of fell in love with Grace Coddington when I watched the documentary The September Issue a few years ago. Apparently Anna Wintour, the famous (or infamous) editor of Vogue hoped the documentary would counter the depiction "of fashion as utterly ridiculous" in the movie The Devil Wears Prada, and instead show that Vogue was "not just a load of airheads spouting rubbish."  I actually liked The September Issue a lot better than The Devil Wears Prada...although I must say that Meryl Streep was brilliant as Miranda Priestly.
Coddington's memoir is a fascinating look at her life inside and outside the fashion world. How the fashion world works, who decides what is "in" and why... the designers, the models, the stylists, the photographers...and how the whole shebang has changed over the years. She doesn't pull her punches about that: "...because my feeling has always been that people should concentrate on their jobs and not all this fashionable 'I want to be a celebrity' shit." I love that bit.

The illustrations in the book (like the one below) are Grace's own and depict the events of her life with wry humour. I actually haven't finished the book yet. I dip into it every now and then; sitting in my sun room with a cup of tea at my elbow, I open it where I left off last time and step into Grace's world. 

Another favourite fashion non-fiction book is a kind of advice/how- to book... but one that is sooo quirky that I adore it. Okay... now stay with me; this gets complicated.

A few years ago, writer Kathleen Tessaro "stumbled across an extraordinary book in  a secondhand bookshop entitled Elegance by Genevieve Antoine Dariaux," or so she says in the forward of her own novel by the same name. Madame Dariaux's book is an alphabetically organized "Guide to Elegance," everything from A is for "Accessories" to Z is for "Zippers."  

So...Tessaro finds this book called Elegance from the 60's, written by the long time "directrice" at Nina Ricci in Paris, ... uses it as the inspiration for her own novel called Elegance... in which Louise, her hapless character, also finds a copy of the book called Elegance ... and uses its wisdom to help get her life back on track. 
Tu me comprends?

Anyhoo... I read and loved the Tessaro novel. And then I was delighted one day to find, at my local bookstore, the reissued, original, non-fiction book from the 60's. 

I  loved thumbing my way through this, taking the advice in the spirit of the age in which it was originally delivered. Mme. Dariaux weighs in on the definition of chic and how to acquire it, the ideal winter wardrobe and the need for tweed suits and "harmonizing sweaters," the necessity of owning a matching dressing gown and bedroom slippers, the desirability of the "ideal accessory"- a single strand pearl necklace,  and when and how a woman should wear a veil.

So many rules. Sigh. How simple dressing must have been then. 

I guess I'm kind of obsessed with the past. That's pretty evident if you read my blog regularly. I've written a few times about my love of the past and old things: about old family photos here and about my love of vintage hats here

A few years ago I decided to spend my Christmas Chapters/Indigo gift card on something really special. Not just a book that I could get from the library, but a book that I would want to keep forever. I strolled through the store sipping my latte, perusing the fashion section and finally decided on this book by Emma Baxter-Wright.

It's a gorgeous book. The photographs are wonderful, really capturing the spirit of fashion in each era. I love the clothes from the 40's in this shot below.

This book details the changing "silhouettes " and key looks for each decade. The use of fabrics, cuts and designs and why each developed. As well as the big fashion names: Schiaparelli, Chanel, Dior, Mary Quant, Emilio Pucci, Halston..and Biba (remember Biba?) 

I try never to miss the big Vintage Clothing Sale here in Ottawa every November. I usually can't fit into the clothes I would actually want to buy...but I love to look. I find I'm getting better at recognizing the elements in a jacket or a dress that identify when it was made. Last year my friend and I went with her two teenage daughters. That was so much fun. Vintage was made for those girls! They looked gorgeous in everything and I'm afraid I may have encouraged them a teensy bit to overspend. 

I can't remember where I first heard about Linda Grant's book The Thoughtful Dresser.  But, trust me, if you love fashion, you must read this book. The subtitle reads "The Art of Adornment, the Pleasures of Shopping and Why Clothes Matter." Ahhhh. This is the book for me.

Grant really does explore the question of "why clothes matter." And she does it beautifully, with evocative description, personal anecdotes, and wonderfully insightful analysis. I mean, she IS after all an award winning author; she won the Orange Prize and the Lettre Ulysses Award; she was shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker prize and the Guardian Fiction Prize. 

Seriously folks...if Linda Grant loves clothes...who are we to look down on other women as shallow if they love fashion??! Not that I do look down on.. mean, me. 

Grant's book begins with her description of a red high-heeled shoe, "Glorious, scarlet, insouciant," and follows with her musings on who the woman might have been who owned that shoe, loved it and wore it on that last day. 

You see the shoe is one of a huge pile of other shoes, an exhibit in the museum at Auschwitz, near Krakow in Poland. Grant writes, "The pile of shoes is designed to be symbolic, representing the footwear of twenty-five thousand individuals from one day's activity at the camp, at the height of the gassings." That red shoe haunted Grant because, as she says, "someone arrived at Auschwitz wearing, or carrying in her luggage, red high-heeled shoes, and this shoe is all that is left of her." That unnamed woman once had a life, a family, freedom, and "once upon a time, she liked to shop for stylish footwear."

The book continues with anecdotes from Grant's own life and the life of her mother, whose phrase "A good handbag makes the outfit," Grant says, "had etched itself on [her]childhood." 

She talks about how clothes matter to those erudite and brilliant women we book-lovers revere; women like Edith Warton and George Eliot and Virginia Woolfe. And erudite and brilliant men like Marcel Proust and Emile Zola, who she says "wrote about clothes and cared about clothes." 

That's right, Emile Zola thought clothes and shopping were important. He "saw the modern department store as a metaphor for modern life." So if you aren't anxiously awaiting the next season of The Paradise, based on Zola's should be.
Some of the best parts of The Thoughtful Dresser, in my vieware when Grant gets a little hot under the collar at those people she calls "the puritan moralists who affect to despise fashion and those who love it. Who shrilly proclaim that only vain, foolish Barbie dolls, their brains addled by consumerism, would wear anything but sensible clothes  made to last." 

Strong words, Ms. Grant. Yah! Take that 'puritan moralists!' God, I love this woman!

I remember when I was reading this book for the first time...I kept taking it  to work and reading the best bits aloud to my friends over lunch. It seemed to me as if Linda Grant had awakened one morning and said to herself..."I think I'll write a book for Sue Burpee." 

Or for anyone who loves literature and fashion in equal parts. 

And the best thing about reading this book is that it made me realize how many more of me there are out there!

What non-fiction books are you passionate about? Care to tell the rest of us?


  1. I have a couple of these books including the book "Grace, A Memoir." I put this book away in early 2013 after reading about 100 pages. As I remember, I became very bored with it but you have my curiosity up again. Have just pulled it off the shelf and will give it another try.

    1. Well, it's not the most gripping book I've ever read. But I love how it gives a view into the fashion world. And I just really like Grace Coddington and her work.
      Thanks for reading.

  2. It is so funny, Susan, but just today I was looking for new fashion and style reads. Thanks for the list. I am going to look some of these up. I really want to find the documentary as well...I would like to see it.

    1. I loved "The September Issue" and I think you will too. But you have to read "The Thoughtful Dresser" book about fashion ever!


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