WE ASKED EIGHT EXPERTS TO DISCUSS THE MOST FABULOUS RECENT BOOKS ON FASHION.
Valerie Steele, chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology and author of Fetish: Fashion, Sex, and Power (Oxford, 1996).
"Fur has been a symbol of wealth ever since the Middle Ages. Because of the perceived link between material and sexual excess, writers like Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, in Venus in Furs, have also associated fur with the erotic. Recently, however, the animal rights movement has mobilized public opinion against fur clothing, which is now widely seen as evidence of an animal's victimization. Concerned with both fur's libidinal value and the ideological basis of animal-rights activism, Julia Emberley's The Cultural Politics of Fur (Cornell, 1997) is the most intellectually sophisticated analysis of fur that I have read. Particularly fascinating is her documentation of the confrontations during the 1980s between Lynx, a British organization of animal-rights activists, and its opponentsincluding indigenous people such as the Inuit, who make their living as trappers, and feminists, who objected to the portrayal of fur-clad women in the Lynx campaign."
Beverly Lemire, professor of history at the University of New Brunswick and author of Dress, Culture and Commerce: The English Clothing Trade Before the Factory 16601800 (St. Martin's, 1997).
"Fashion's academic allure is growing, thanks in part to scholars like Daniel Roche, who, in The Culture of Clothing: Dress and Fashion in the Ancien Régime (Cambridge, 1994), uses fashion to penetrate `to the heart of social history.' Roche revises our view of both the height of fashion among that era's French elites and the spread of popular fashion to non-elite buyers. The codes of fashion, the cost of wardrobes, the making, mending, and recycling of garmentsall reveal the social choices and values assigned to this most essential commodity. An excellent complement to Roche's perspective is The Sex of Things: Gender and Consumption in Historical Perspective (California, 1996), edited by Victoria de Grazia with Ellen Furlough. The collection's essays reassess femininity and masculinity by examining consumer purchases ranging from the clothing of eighteenth-century Parisian coquettes to the cosmetics of twentieth-century American women."
Joanne Finkelstein, professor of sociology and cultural studies at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia and author of Fashion: An Introduction (NYU, 1998).
"The word `suit' has come to be used as an epithet for a boring, corporate person, but Anne Hollander, in Sex and Suits (Knopf, 1994), shows how much more a suit can reveal. Whether worn by men or women, she argues, the suit embodies the perfect style and aesthetic of the modern. Its tailoring, shaping of the body, and ease of fit display the crucial modern values of efficiency, simplicity, and a desire for beauty. As Hollander sees it, the persistence of classical, humanist values in modern society can be traced through the aesthetics of body presentation. In addition to its wonderful illustrations, the book offers fascinating asides. The modern business suit, for instance, was at one stage in its career equivalent to our contemporary blue jeans and T-shirt: the rebellious wear of the new generation of brash young men seeking to remake society."
Linda Drew, senior lecturer in fashion studies at the London College of Fashion and author of The Business of Fashion (Cambridge, 1992).
"Angela McRobbie's British Fashion Design: Rag Trade or Image Industry? (Routledge, 1998) provides an illuminating account of the education and career patterns of fashion designers in Britain. Drawing on sociological, political, and cultural studies perspectives, McRobbie highlights the insatiable appetite for `spectacular consumption'from the 1980s retail boom to the more recent canonization of British designers in the Paris fashion establishment. McRobbie's well-documented account of fashion education in Britain exposes the relative absence of theory in fashion course work, and her close-grained analysis of working patterns in both craft and mass manufacturing points to some of the acute insecurities in the industry's labor market. Stella Bruzzi, in Undressing Cinema: Clothing and Identities in the Movies (Routledge, 1998), focuses on the function of fashion in film narrative. She considers everything from the costuming of male identities in Reservoir Dogs to clothing as fetish in The Piano."
Robert J.S. Ross, professor and chair of sociology at Clark University and co-author of Global Capitalism: The New Leviathan (SUNY, 1990).
"Sweatshops are back and as bad as they were a century ago. In Behind the Label: Inequality in the Los Angeles Apparel Industry (California, forthcoming), Richard Appelbaum and Edna Bonacich exhaustively investigate the pyramid of power and profits in the Los Angeles garment industry. At the base are seamsters paid less than minimum wage, and at the apex are contractors, manufacturers, retailers, financiers, and landlords. Appelbaum and Bonacich have written the definitive book on the structure of the apparel industry. No Sweat: Fashion, Free Trade, and the Rights of Garment Workers (Verso, 1997), edited by Andrew Ross, includes essays by staffers from UNITEthe apparel unionand other activists who discuss their battles with sweatshops in New York City, Los Angeles, and Mexico. Unfortunately, the collection also includes turgid cultural studies essays about fashion. Taken as a whole, No Sweat speaks well for the new labor movement, but the implication for cultural studies is grim."
Jo-Ann Mort, communications director of the UNITE garment workers' union and editor of Not Your Father's Labor Movement: Inside the New AFL-CIO (Verso, forthcoming).
"Fashion is an industry totally dependent on the global economy. In fact, today's all-American youthful lifestyle is created by those who sew and make the clothes and sneakersnot just by the designers or marketers who advertise them. A young, mostly female workforce in Asia and Latin America sews Guess Jeans, Nike sneakers, and other trademark clothes sold in fashion magazines and malls all across America. As William Greider demonstrates through a series of case studies in his mammoth and important book, One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism (Simon and Schuster, 1997), the all-American image is largely dependent on countless contract employees in Indonesia and elsewhere, working without rights, without freedom, and without hope of experiencing even the remotest part of the comfortable lifestyle they weave and stitch."
Susan B. Kaiser, professor of textiles and clothing at the University of California at Davis and author of The Social Psychology of Clothing: Symbolic Appearances in Context (Fairchild, 1997).
"Processes of production and consumption are frequentlyand falselyrepresented as worlds apart. Judith G. Coffin's The Politics of Women's Work: The Paris Garment Trades, 17501915 (Princeton, 1996) helps to put this dichotomized framing to rest by illustrating how women's livelihoods and consumer capitalism have been historically bound together through fabrics, fashions, and sewing machines. Sewing machines, for instance, besides being tools for the mass production of clothing, have been marketed to women as domestic consumer goods. In some ways, Malcolm Barnard's Fashion as Communication (Routledge, 1996) also captures the complex interplay between production and consumption. He focuses on the meanings of fashion, but he, too, helps to blur the distinctions between producing and purchasing. He characterizes fashion as a fundamentally political process of making and destroying meaning. Read together, Coffin and Barnard move us toward a richer understanding of the material and ideological connections between those who make and those who buy."
Joanne B. Eicher, professor of design, housing, and apparel at the University of Minnesota and editor of Dress and Ethnicity: Change across Space and Time (Berg Oxford, 1995).
"Often the most alluring garments are those rarely seen. In Support and Seduction: A History of Corsets and Bras (Abrams, 1997), Béatrice Fontanel examines the different ways women's undergarments have girdled the waist, stomach, and hips and supported, enhanced, flattened, or exposed the breasts. Her lavishly illustrated text shows how undergarments have sculpted the armature of the female body to fit the clothing draped on itoften making women look more seductive and less natural. Fontanel documents not only fashion but also health concerns, such as fainting induced by tightly laced corsets. Although the book lacks footnotes, its bibliography includes French sources rarely cited by American or British authors."
Are there any great books you think we missed? Let us know.