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Book Review: Fashion – A History from the 18th to the 20th Century, edited by The Kyoto Costume Institute

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Fashion is not for everybody. Simply take a look at any crowd of Americans walking down the street and you’ll see how true this really is. Not since the 1960s, when well-designed couturier and other fashion went into the tank in favor of tie-dyed T-shirts and raggedy beards for the fellows, Afghani muu-muu’s for the ladies, and the ubiquitous badly scuffed Indian sandals for everyone, with a few flowers in the hair cadged from the side of the road as an homage to bodhisattva… not since then has fashion been so ignored by the average person.

But these days it’s not simply ignored. It is actively, intensely denied.

There is real malaise in the insistence on looking like a slob that so informs how most people dress now. In the 1960s there was at least an anarchist political outburst. Now, there is simply a hunkering down to avoid being noticed. Perhaps dressing badly helps hide you from the White House and Homeland Security. And the Europeans –- at one time the creative source and ardent defenders of good design — are no better.

When you look at the fashion magazines, and see badly designed clothing being modeled by starved young men and women wearing make-up that looks like poster paint, in photo-shoots that make use of subway-station men’s rooms as sets, you can be forgiven for thinking that fashion was better in the 1920s. The problem gets worse when you see photos of the contemporary designers themselves, so many of which look like homeless skateboarders.

Coco Chanel has no doubt worried about all this from the grave.

Luckily there are historians and institutions that remind us of what once was, and we can hope that this attention to past beauty will some day result in beauty’s re-awakening somewhere down the line.

One of these historians is The Kyoto Costume Institute, whose striking collection of European fashion has been commemorated in the two-volume collection entitled Fashion: A History from the 18th to the 20th Century, published by Taschen. These volumes, which are among the most beautifully printed books I’ve ever seen of contemporary fashion photography, can be purchased (at least as of this writing on January 30, 2008) from Amazon.com for the amazing price of $36.17 per set.

The first volume, which features fashion from the 18th and 19th centuries, has very informative articles by KCI curator Tamani Suoh and by a lecturer from the Sugino Fashion College, Miki Iwagami, on all manner of fashion considerations.

In the 18th century section, we learn about Rococo fashion and its amazingly detailed and complicated decorative excesses. We read about how it was that men could also dress so flamboyantly… that is, until the French Revolution took some of those men’s heads, something that certainly puts a damper on most frivolity. We read about haberdashers, tailors and dressmakers, whose creations often made them into the precursors of modern-day clothing designers, and therefore brought some of them considerable wealth and prestige.

In the 19th century section we learn about the development of undergarments (petticoats, bustles, crinolines and corsets). The beginnings of the fashion system (ready-made clothing, the machine age and the making of fabric, the fashion “industry”). Clothing for sport and resorts. (Did you know that one of the elements that caused shorter skirts toward the end of the 19th century was the new popularity among women for skiing and golf? Yes, the 19th century, not the 20th.) The Empire Style. The Romantic Style.

The second volume of History is devoted to fashion of the 20th century, and therefore delves extensively into the rise and importance of contemporary clothing designers. The book begins with a photo of a 1903 evening dress by the Frenchman Jacques Doucet and ends with another photo of a simple form-fitting dress, done in 1999 by the Japanese designer Issey Miyake. In between these two are examples of designs of every sort by all of the major designers of the last century.

The broad outlines of the history of fashion that make both these volumes so important are particularized in astonishing detail by the illustrations, re-creations or photographs of individual items of clothing, of decoration, of jewelry, shoes, underwear, what have you… from every decade of the three centuries. The quality of the depictions are matched by the intensity and detail of the accompanying captions, descriptions and mini-essays that accompany almost every single picture or photo-spread. I believe that, were you to read and digest all of the information in these two books, you would have become something of an expert in the field yourself.

Akiko Fukai, the chief curator of The Kyoto Costume Institute, writes in her forward to these books “Part of the recognition the KCI has received stems from its policy of displaying articles of clothing in a manner that is both academically accurate and true to life. In other words, the KCI presents clothing not just as historical artifacts, but also as vital elements of fashion. The exhibitions capture the elegance and charm that the clothing had in its day, as though simply having been ‘awakened’ after a long ‘sleep.’”

They may have been asleep for a while. But the articles of clothing described and displayed in the two volumes of Fashion: A History from the 18th to the 20th Century are the stuff of vibrant dreams and of the wish for transcendent beauty and considerable fun.

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About Terence Clarke