Book recommendations: The history and social function of clothing.
March 18, 2021 7:14 AM   Subscribe

Recently, with a little time on my hands, I've decided to explore a topic that's piqued my interest for a long time--the history and social role of clothing.

Specifically, I'm looking for books that 1) present an historical overview of clothing over the last 1000 to 500 years, outlining the political or social causes behind the emergence of new types of clothing and fashion, or 2) analyze the historical role of clothing in society, politics, power relations, and gender expression.

Are there any books on these topics that you've enjoyed in the past and can recommend? Both academic and non-academic volumes would be highly welcomed!
posted by Gordion Knott to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (21 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Women in Clothes
posted by phunniemee at 7:19 AM on March 18

I haven't read it yet and don't know the author's work, but Virginia Postrel's The Fabric of Civilization is on my shelf waiting to be read.
posted by eotvos at 7:46 AM on March 18 [1 favorite]

One of Montaigne's essays was "On the Custom of Wearing Clothes", which might be an interesting non-contemporary perspective.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:54 AM on March 18 [1 favorite]

I haven't read it yet, but have just ordered Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History.
posted by bedhead at 7:59 AM on March 18 [1 favorite]

I’ve spent many a happy hour poring over the illustrations in The Costume History by Auguste Racinet.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:20 AM on March 18

I know you only asked for book recommendations, but if you’re not already familiar with Karolina Zebrowska’s YouTube channel I think you’ll get a lot out of it.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:23 AM on March 18 [4 favorites]

This is a narrow portion of what you're looking for, but Summer Brennan's book High Heel in Bloomsbury's "Object Lessons" series is very good.
posted by needs more cowbell at 8:42 AM on March 18

Not a book, but Holly Frey of Stuff You Missed in History has another podcast Dressed: The History of Fashion, which may be a good resource for discovering books and authors on the subject.
posted by subocoyne at 8:58 AM on March 18 [1 favorite]

I personally found Beverly Gordon's Textiles: The Whole Story to be a bit too broad, but for what you're looking for, it was absolutely loaded with references that would allow you to take a deep dive on a section that grabbed you.

I'd also second the podcast Dressed.
posted by tchemgrrl at 9:47 AM on March 18 [1 favorite]

Let There Be Clothes: 40,000 Years of Human Fashion , by Lynn Schnurnberger, was a discovery at my elementary-school library that I have continued to delight in my whole life. Mostly Eurocentric after the ancient world, but full of fantastic snippets about "the historical role of clothing in society, politics, power relations, and gender expression'.
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 10:00 AM on March 18 [1 favorite]

I just started the Dress Codes book that bedhead mentioned above last night (so too soon to recommend) but I do think that at least from the introduction it seems like a book that would fit your interests. If you click through that BN link and click the book, you can read a sample.
posted by sm1tten at 10:10 AM on March 18

Not a book recommendation, but if you haven't already seen it, I imagine A Stitch in Time would be right up your alley. Think we watched it on Prime. Maybe too beginner for you, but we really enjoyed watching the recreations of the garments and particularly what wearing the garments felt like and what that said about the period.
posted by widdershins at 11:24 AM on March 18

Are Clothes Modern? An essay on contemporary apparel (1947) [link is to a 58 MB pdf]
posted by panic at 1:13 PM on March 18

It's a somewhat narrow category of clothing but is deeply tied to gender and social issues: Bikes and Bloomers: Victorian Women Inventors & their Extraordinary Cycle Wear.

From the description:

This highly visual social history of women’s cycle wear explores Victorian engineering, patent studies and radical feminist invention. Underpinned by three years of in-depth archival research and inventive practice, this new book by Kat Jungnickel brings to life in rich detail the lesser-known stories of six inventors and their unique contributions to cycling’s past, continue to shape urban life for contemporary mobile women.
posted by rhiannonstone at 8:20 PM on March 18

It, ah, goes a few years further back in history than you asked for, but maybe you'd be interested in Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber?
posted by somedaycatlady at 8:53 PM on March 18 [2 favorites]

alison lurie's the language of clothes
posted by brujita at 10:34 PM on March 18

It only covers menswear in the United States and over a narrow part of the time period you're interested in, but Ready-Made Democracy: A History of Men's Dress in the American Republic, 1760-1860 by Michael Zakim.

I admit that I haven't read it myself, but it was recommended by Derek Guy of Die, Workwear!. Here's a list of other book recommendations of his.
posted by Strutter Cane - United Planets Stilt Patrol at 2:31 AM on March 19 [1 favorite]

Anne Hollander -- Seeing Through Clothes

If nothing more she deepened my appreciation of carved drapery in Classical Greek sculpture. But there is so much more there.

Note that the link has the first chapter available as a pdf for the flavor.
posted by y2karl at 2:09 PM on April 22

See also

ESSAYS - Anne Hollander
posted by y2karl at 2:15 PM on April 22

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