a quick review of fashion-related books if you’re looking for present ideas!

It’s occurred to me that I’ve read a number of fashion-related books in the last couple of years which I found really enjoyable but the only two I’ve ever reviewed here was the autobiography of Vivienne Westwood, and a double biography of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano called Gods and Kings. You can still read the original posts here for the Westwood and likewise Gods and Kings although I must have fiddled with them in the past because I don’t think any of the photos now appear with them, sorry about that. I found both books well written, very readable and insightful into the lives and inspirations of all three protagonists. 

I also enjoyed reading “Blow by Blow” which is a biography of the life and influence of stylist and patron of up-and-coming fashion designers, Isabella Blow. Written by her husband Detmar Blow after her sad death in 2007 it gives an insight into her passions and creative joie de vivre which saw her discover, promote and support Alexander McQueen and milliner Philip Treacy. Sadly, she and McQueen became somewhat estranged and her death affected him very badly. Philip Treacy, however, still speaks very warmly of her kindness, humour, and possibly her best known public quality, sartorial eccentricity. There was no hat or outfit which she deemed too ridiculous to wear out in public if it promoted her favourite young designers! In spite of coming from a wealthy background she was frequently hard up but was always generous and supportive of her protegees.

Next up is a biography of Coco Chanel by Justine Picardie. Again I found it well-written and readable (always the most important factor as far as I’m concerned, if it’s all as dry as dust and doesn’t bring it’s subject matter alive to me then it’s not going to hold my interest for long, no matter how many interesting photos there are) I discovered that Gabrielle Chanel had a sad childhood about which she was very cagey in later life and an often-colourful love life too. [Amusing fact-I knew that the film version of Dad’s Army from 2016 was factually inaccurate from having read this book! A woman discovered to be the spy at the end of the film was ‘exposed’ because she was wearing Chanel outfits direct form Paris-this was impossible because Chanel closed down her salon for the duration of the war!]

One of my most recent fashion-related reads has been former Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman’s diary of the magazine’s centenary year in 2016, ‘Inside Vogue’. As you might expect from a woman with 25 years in the most influential position in British magazine publishing she offers interesting insights into how all the elements for the centenary edition, including the secret photo shoot with the Duchess of Cambridge, gradually came together. All this was happening alongside the regular monthly publications, plus the exhibition to be held at the National Portrait Gallery in London, the Vogue Festival with a wide variety of speakers and seminars, and a celebratory gala dinner. She finishes the book on the eve of the Brexit referendum vote….  

My penultimate book is a ‘bust the budget’ one about milliner Philip Treacy. I went to an evening ‘in conversation’ with him at the V&A (not me, someone else was talking to him, we just listened!!) It was such an enjoyable evening, the audience were held in wrapt attention as he has the most beautiful soft Irish lilt and told such charming and engrossing stories of his life and career that we didn’t want him to stop [I recommend listening to him on Desert Island Discs if you can find it as a podcast, you’ll get a sense of what I mean] I queued 45 minutes to buy the book afterwards and then another 45 minutes to have him sign it for me. It was worth the wait as I now have a personal, and very individual, inscription in the front. It’s a hefty coffee table book that’s for sure but it’s a lovely one to be able to see just how many high-profile clients he has had since being ‘discovered’ by Isabella Blow. These have included Lady Gaga, members of the Royal family and Grace Jones amongst many others.

And finally, the most recently published book I’ve acquired is The Fashion Chronicles written by fashion historian Amber Butchart. This is a nice little book which you can dip in and out of to learn about the people she considers to be amongst the most influential in clothing and fashion throughout history. Some of her choices are quite surprising and definitely no predicable, it’s well written and well illustrated. I’d love there to be a second series of  “A Stitch in Time” as it was as much about social history as the development of clothing in the past but sadly she doesn’t think there will be at the present time. 

So that’s my not very comprehensive review of some books about fashion that I’ve enjoyed and which you might too. The links I’ve provided are generally to Amazon but I’m in no way affiliated to them, nor was I sponsored or paid to write about any of these books so all views expressed are my own.   

So until next time,

Sue

Fashioned from Nature at the V&A museum

This is one of the most recent exhibitions to open at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and it’s a very thought-provoking one exploring the relationship between man, fashion and the natural world. It’s divided into the now familiar format of the historic element downstairs with the larger more modern and forward-looking section upstairs.

This works well because there are displays containing beautifully conserved clothing and accessories dating as far back as the 1600s alongside helpful and fascinating short films and information about the origins and manufacture of textiles using both traditional sources such as cotton, flax, silk and wool but also the more unusual such as pineapple fibre.

The items chosen for display demonstrate both the influence of natural subjects in the design-primarily plants and animals, and the effects of textile production on society as a whole. Cotton and wool for example were a huge part of the success of the UK for hundreds of years and made fortunes for a relatively few people but at vast human suffering for many in the form of slavery, overwork, terrible working conditions and resultant illness. Added to this was the decimation of animal and bird populations to supply the demands of the burgeoning fashion industry with feathers, fur, tortoiseshell, whalebone etc and you have a some uncomfortable viewing.

The origins of the RSPB in the UK started towards the end of the 19th Century when Governments around Europe became concerned for the welfare of bird populations brought to the point of extinction in places.

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This albatross was destined to become a muff to keep a fashionable lady’s hands warm.

Ostrich feathers were extremely popular on evening gowns and fans, this little hat is labelled as being the ‘improved starling’ hat with it’s printed feather decoration, the natural beauty of the feathers not being quite good enough presumably?

Seal populations were hugely reduced by the desire for seal fur to make or line coats, muffs and hats, as were whales for their flexible bones which were used in corsets, amongst other things. And then there’s ivory for buttons, umbrella handles and hair decorations, the list goes on…

New resources such as rubber found uses for footwear and to give elasticity to things like stockings and mens braces.

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These natty rubber-soled boots are actually for a man (Oscar Wilde I’m thinking…)

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Mother of pearl and seashells have long been popular for decorating objects as well as practical items like buttons.

Not everything is doom and gloom in the exhibition, there are some stunning pieces of embroidery and garments which are a visual delight. One of my favourites was an Eighteenth century man’s waistcoat embroidered with Macaque monkeys.

Floral motifs are a perennial favourite both as woven cloth and as embroidered fabric.

I was surprised to discover that using pineapple fibre to make fabric has been around for a couple of hundred years, especially given they were such expensive fruit in their own right.

This evening gown uses pineapple fibre fabric, and the handkerchief is cotton embroidered with pineapple-fibre thread.

Moving upstairs you will discover garments by designers keen to explore and embrace new textiles and technology. Stella McCartney is a well-known exponent of these with her refusal to use any animal-based product and there are some interesting examples of faux leather being made from the waste by-products of the winemaking industry, and ‘leather’ made from a type of mushroom protein! [Incidentally the episode of Desert Island Discs featuring Stella McCartney is very enjoyable and she talks about her use of ethical fabrics and textiles during it] Extraordinary stuff and virtually indistinguishable from real leather. These are ‘designer’ products though so I have no idea of the cost but like any new technology it has to start somewhere and will hopefully filter down eventually to be more affordable.

There were other examples of flora and fauna in the textile design including my favourite Alexander McQueen with a reptile-inspired dress from his Plato’s Atlantis collection.fullsizeoutput_258bfullsizeoutput_258a

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An ‘under the sea’ evening gown by Zac Posen

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Not fur but bugle beads!

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This ‘leopard’ is made entirely from beads by Jean-Paul Gaultier

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Another beautiful evening gown, this time by Giles Deacon, this one features a gorgeous fabric printed with birds eggs

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A heavily embroidered skirt by Christopher Kane with the reproductive parts of plants!

There is plenty of information and several films which go into greater depth about the effects not only of over-consumption of textiles but also the damage it’s production does to the planet and the workers. Denim, and therefore jeans, for example if the most water-wasteful and polluting of any fabric being produced, we have to address this fact and soon. I’ll be honest and say that I was flagging a little by this time, absolutely not through boredom, far from it, but from information overload. If this is your primary interest in visiting this exhibition then go straight upstairs because there’s so much fascinating, often shocking, but ultimately encouraging information to explore.

Also, did you know that Velcro got invented because a Swiss scientist Georges de Mestral noticed while walking in the Jura during the 1940’s that burrs from plants were clinging to his clothes and his dog’s fur so he investigated further and found they were tiny little hooks. Eventually this discovery became the basis for the product we know today!

Up-cycling is another area that’s looked into, reusing textiles be it unwanted clothes or end-of-line products like ribbon to make new products. Refashioning is not new but it fell out of favour, now it’s making a return.

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This outfit is made from maps printed on silk for wartime use but was actually only made in 2017.

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This collar is made from leftover rolls of ribbon.

I could go on, adding more photos of everything but I urge you, if you get the opportunity, to go for yourself and see this exhibition. If you’re interested in fashion and clothing it will really open your eyes to some of the facts about it’s production which you might not be aware of and make you think about how we can improve the situation by our own consumption of goods.

Vivienne Westwood is a leading advocate of choosing fashion wisely, her motto being Buy Less and Buy Well, in other words buy the best you can afford because it’s more likely to have been ethically made from better materials and will last you longer. I know personally I can’t always manage this but by making my own clothes most of the time and wearing them frequently is making a start.

Fashioned from Nature is on at the V&A until next January 27th 2019. I’ve not been sponsored to write this piece, I have my own membership which I use frequently!

Happy sewing, and visiting!

Sue