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Book Review: Decades of Fashion 1900 to the Present by Harriet Worsley

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Decades of Fashion 1900 to the Present, a packed coffee table book of over 600 pages, covers more than a century of fashion for the design enthusiast. Black and white and color photography from the Getty Images collection provide a visual timeline of fashion icons and trends.

The book is divided into 10 chapters, each concentrating on a particular fashion trend, with essays written by Harriet Worsely that give a brief overview of the styles in women’s clothing and historical context for the period.

Most interesting are the detailed captions that accompany each image in the book. And there are so many fabulous images. 

The Belle Époque — Women shed their tight corsets and restrictive multiple layers of clothing and donned softer garments, designed with influences from classical art and Greek statuary. One of the more interesting profiles was of Lady Ottoline Morelli, a member of the Bloomsbury Group, who dyed her hair purple and was described as “that fantastic, baroque flamingo”. Top designers of the period included Paul Poiret and Mariano Fortuny.

Suited and Booted — in the World War I era, men’s clothing, such as knotted ties and suits, infiltrated women’s fashion. This chapter featured many images of women at work. One of the best was of a female Metropolitan Railway worker, with a very short (for the period) — knee-length — skirt.

Boom and Bust — In the post-war ’20s, hemlines rose along with expectations. The little black dress entered the fashion lexicon thanks to top designers Coco Chanel and Edward Molyneux. One of the most striking images in this section was of tennis star Suzanne Lenglen at Wimbledon, on the court with rolled-down flapper stockings and tennis outfit designed by Jean Patou.

Glamour Years — Loose-fitting undergarments were replaced by girdles and brassieres, which helped streamline women into the ideal Hollywood silhouette of long, slim and slinky. Women also started wearing trousers, and movie stars like Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich became fashion icons. In one of the most iconic images in the book, Dietrich looks amazing in a white man’s style suit, complete with bow tie and hat, and still looks completely and alluringly feminine. Popular designers of the time included Elsa Schiaparelli and Cristobal Balenciaga.

Make Do and Mend — Styles became a bit more practical during the Second World War years. Especially interesting is a photo of a Utility design, featuring an original dress and its mass-produced copy.

New World, New Look — Post-war, more luxurious fabrics were once again available and designers like Christian Dior and Hubert de Givenchy took full advantage, with voluminous skirts and sweeping jackets. But jeans and more casual styles were also popular, epitomized in one of the photos by Marilyn Monroe, looking adorable in a casual shirt and Capri pants.

Minis and Mods — The Beatles and Camelot were just some of the pop culture icons that influenced ’60s fashion. So many over-the-top, free-spirited fashions are depicted this chapter, but especially striking is an image of a leopard-print-clad Barbra Streisand, photographed at a Chanel fashion show.

The Daisy Age — It was anything goes in the ’70s, with designers like Pierre Cardin and Mary Quant raising hemlines even further than ever before. Androgyny, bikinis, and punk rock were all part of the eclectic fashion scene. A photo of Mick and Bianca Jagger, both wearing skirts in St. Tropez, illustrates the era perfectly.

Dress to Impress — Shapes became exaggerated and sculptural in the ’80s, embodied in the designs of Issey Miyake and Sonia Rykiel. Miyake used yards of fabric in his draped designs, a quite different, voluminous take on classical statuary.

Back to Basics — Designers like Vivienne Westwood and Jean-Paul Gautier injected their designs with color and imagination in the ’90s. Alexander McQueen’s designs were as much fine art as fashion, utilizing unusual materials like metal and glass in his unique and beautiful creations.

Decades of Fashion 1900 to the Present is a book fashion-lovers will want as a reference, and even people cursorily interested in fashion will find much to interest them. The book can be enjoyed again and again, one can flip through the years and changing hairstyles and watching hemlines rise and fall as fashion in the past century has reflected art, style, politics, and necessity.

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