Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Book Review: The Anatomy of Fashion

It is always a delight to discover a non-fiction writer who can write about history with both intelligence and levity. And although the title of this book "The Anatomy of Fashion" sounds like it might be a dour tome filled with dull facts, Susan J. Vincent brings a light hand to her analysis of how different parts of the body have been the focus of fashion over the course of history. In her prologue, Vincent lays out the parameters for the book as being "neither chronological nor complete," "not a survey", but rather "a series of snapshots "focusing on "one body part at a time". Beginning with the head and neck, she moves down the body to breasts and waist, hips and bottom, genitals and legs, and finishes with skin. Each body part is given a chapter of analysis which includes ample illustrations, quotations from primary sources, and other reference material.

I particularly enjoyed reading the many anecdotes taken from historical poetry, correspondence and records that are interspersed throughout the book.  For example: "The quantities of powder used to dress hair were surprisingly large. Mary Frampton tells us that 'one pounds, and even two pounds' of powder might be put into the hair in one dressing, though she perceptively adds 'or wasted in the room'. From excise office accounts, we know that before 1795 over eight million pounds of starch was made in Britain annually, most of which went into hair powder. Various devices were used to dredge this vast amount of powder onto the heads of its wearers. Blowers and different types of powder puffs were used with various techniques, according to the desired effect and the stage of dressing. The wearer, and his or her clothing, was protected from the resulting fine mist by a powdering jacket or gown, and a mask." (page 15)

Of particular interest to me because of my recent research into crinolines was the chapter on hips and bottoms. The reference to the "serious injury or death that became a kind of occupational hazard for crinoline wearers" caught my attention as I'd read about such incidents but had difficulty finding specific examples thereof. Vincent cites several including the story of Ann Watts in January 1860 whose crinoline "was snagged in the machinery that ran under a workbench at a Sheffield button factory, where she had gone to visit her sister. Miss Watts was drawn down and whirled about the shaft before the machine could be stopped. She sustained terrible injuries to her head, shoulders and spine, and died a few days later." (page 93). Using the examples of real people in her analysis give this book a lively tone.

Vincent does not just dip into history but she analyzes contemporary views on fashioning the body today. She takes the position that "dress no longer really matters to us" as evidenced by the informality which has largely penetrated many of the most formal of occasions (ie., the opera). Instead, she argues that society has become fixated on the body, where fitness is the new corset and tattoos and piercings are decoration. Although this book is well suited as a textbook, it is an engaging and thoughtful read for even seasoned fashion veterans.

Title: The Anatomy of Fashion, Dressing the Body from the Renaissance to Today
Author: Susan J. Vincent
Publisher: Berg, New York 2009
Category: Non-fiction, Costume History
Number of pages: 234