I don’t review much nonfiction here, but this book was so fun that I had to share it. I used to spend large amounts of time poring over books on the history of clothing. (This has somehow led to me being much more knowledgeable about the fashions of the past than of the present – I will often cringe at historical books and movies done badly, even as I feel adrift trying to buy clothes for myself.)
Why’d They Wear That? Fashion as the Mirror of History by Sarah Albee. National Geographic, 2015.
This is a bright and fun social history of fashion perfect for kids and teens. Rather than taking a strictly timeline approach to the subject, Albee links trends across time and space – togas and saris, the Visigoths, the medieval era called Gothic, and the modern Goth fashion trend. Each trend is covered in an article a page or two long (though the pages are very large.) She doesn’t shy away from the tough parts of fashion and its cost to both the makers and the wearers, such as the use of toxic chemicals and clothes that don’t let the wearer eat, breathe or walk (that would be Elizabethan, Victorian, and modern-day.) Albee is clear – we like to think we’re superior to our ancestors who wore such impractical fashion, while being blind to the ways our current fashion choices can also hurt us and the people who make them.
This is much more international than most books on the topic, with some coverage of clothing in Africa, Asia and South America, as well as familiar Europe and America. There are also plenty of articles on armor and clothes for fighting, which together with the more technical touches, help make this appealing for young readers who wouldn’t be interested in fashion for beauty or fashion’s sake. It’s filled with colorful pictures of fashion from the past to the present, although in the quest for color (I assume), I saw somewhat of an over-reliance on Victorian drawings of ancient and medieval fashions. That means this isn’t your source if you’re looking for primary evidence of clothes of the past for serious research or reconstruction. It’s great, though, for being absolutely engaging and thoughtful, for looking at why people wore what they did and helping us to question our own fashion choices. My mother and I both read it straight through, without really intending to, in my case at least because I just kept reading one more little article until I was done.