Fancy Dress

Appearing in the Australian, 12 February 2022

How to Read a Dress: A Guide to Changing Fashion from the 16th to the 21st Century

By Lydia Edwards

Bloomsbury, 280 pp, $50

If clothing is a language then fashion is the vocabulary. We sometimes think of fashion as a relatively recent phenomenon but this remarkable, sumptuous book demonstrates that it has been around for a long time, and there are threads of continuity across centuries. Edwards, a historian at Western Australia’s Edith Cowan University, is a good guide for a time-travel journey, and the book has the advantage of a large number of colour plates, illustrations and photographs. Edwards dissects each image, explaining how a particular pleat was formed or why a certain decorative feature was used.

She starts at 1550, simply because there are few surviving examples before then. Her focus is on women’s fashion, specifically the single-piece dress, including various accessories and supporting pieces (anyone who wants to look at men’s clothes should try on Edwards’ 2020 book, How to Read a Suit, for size). During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries France was the fashion leader, although England offered stiff competition. Even when at war there was an exchange of ideas between the two countries, such as the collar-like ruff. Along the way, Spain and Italy made important contributions.

The royal courts were the fashion epicentres: not surprising, considering the incredible cost of some of these dresses. There were huge expanses of silk and lace, with whalebone underpinning the whole show. The wearers of these dresses must have looked like magnificent galleons in full sail but it is difficult to see how they might sit down, climb stairs, or go to the toilet. The price of beauty, perhaps.

A constant feature over several centuries was the desire for a wasp-thin waist. For women who could not fit into the torturous corsets there was the alternative of dresses with wide shoulders and exaggerated hips, to give the impression of an hourglass figure. Elizabeth I, the trendsetter of her era, was an exemplar of this, adding necklaces, matching make-up and a halo-like structure to frame the face. But she also liked to show a bit of cleavage, common at the time.

Another angle on the hourglass theme, in the nineteenth century, was puffed-out sleeves and shelf-like bustles. Skirts were made conical by hoops and layers of petticoats.

In Australia, fashion in the 1890s managed to avoid the most extreme forms seen in other countries, according to examples from the large dress collection of Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum. In fact, there were influences from men’s clothing, especially around the necklines, trimmings and cuffs. Practical, yes, although there is also a pleasing and particular aesthetic underlying Australian dress design.

By the time the twentieth century arrived there was more interest in flowing lines rather than complicated overlays, as more women entered the paid workforce. By the 1920s America had emerged as the driving force of fashion, with sleeveless daywear dresses being the hot item. Chanel’s ‘little black dress’ line was revolutionary at the time, and her later suit-like designs started to question whether the dress had any future at all. As it turns out, it did, but as one choice amongst many.

As the fashion focus shifted to youthful energy rather than society matrons in the decades after 1950, there was diminishing interest in clothes based on savage body restrictions and staggering expense. Hemlines went up, and trousers for women started to be taken seriously by designers. Even formal clothes, such as wedding gowns, became less complex. The business of making clothes also underwent massive change, with much less manufacture by hand and more design for ready-to-wear retail. By the 1980s non-Western designers like Issy Miyake were making their presence felt, and Madonna’s cone-shaped bustier (designed by John Paul Gaultier) broke down the barrier between underwear and outerwear.

By the twenty-first century, fashion had become a wealth of cut-and-paste choices, cross-cultural references, sexual expression, and innovative use of non-traditional materials. A 2004 dress by Western Australian designer Donna Franklin was actually made of fungus.

Edwards explains all this in the sort of detail that comes not only with entirely knowing the subject but also loving it. By the nature of the book, there is more breadth than depth but a comprehensive bibliography points to more research opportunities, and there is a useful glossary of terms.

What next for clothing and fashion? Edwards believes that the move towards gender-neutral clothing will continue, and also points to increased interest in manufacturing methods which are environment-friendly and sensitive to cultural origins. There appears to be a resurgence of the ‘prairie’ style of the 1960s and 1970s, although done with a dose of irony. Or maybe the future will not be about ‘fashion’ at all, if the term means a commonality of style for many people, but one-off artisan pieces and eccentric mash-ups. Nevertheless, the single-piece dress is sure to remain, in some form or another. It’s a classic.

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