History Lessons through the Lens of Fashion

BookendsLynn: In her introduction to Why’d They Wear That?: Fashion as the Mirror of History (2015), Sarah Albee notes:

Fashion really is the mirror of history (as Louis XIV is thought to have said), a visual way to describe a society, and this has been true ever since the moment someone slapped on a fig leaf.

She goes on to say that up to 80 years ago, what people wore announced social status, reflected expectations of behavior, population levels and even how much leisure time they had. Some fashions were even life threatening. Even today, whether we care about fashion or not, what we wear makes a statement.

What a fascinating way to look at history!

AlbeeAlbee organizes the book in chronological chunks and then addresses how fashion reflected the society and culture of the time and how each changed the other. What a fascinating way to look at history! Albee writes with an irreverent conversational style filled lots fun wordplay, but there is real substance here. Albee dashes across continents, casting her sartorial eye on a wide range of civilizations and cultures and her examples are both amusing and thought-provoking. Did bad hair days help bring on the French Revolution, she asks. Partly! It seems that revolutionary leaders pointed out that the flour used to powder the towering coiffures of nobility could have been used for bread for the poor.

This large colorful book is packed with wonderful illustrations that make it a visual delight. Well-designed and eye-catching sidebars add fashion-related items that broaden the story, touching on the original method of dry cleaning, when women started wearing underwear, or how clothing was fastened (before 1330 you had to be sewn into your bodice every day!). This lively book is wonderful for reports, straight-through reading, or browsing. Don’t let it slip away!

Cindy: History teachers need a copy of this in their classrooms to consult throughout their curriculum! For instance, a double-page spread about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire has a section with an illustration explaining “What is a shirtwaist?” It also includes another inset about the 2013 Bangladesh clothing factory building collapse that killed hundreds of workers, despite an earlier inspection that declared the building unsafe.

The WWII section explains how rationing led to removing cuffs, pleats, and patch pockets from men’s suits and to the shortening of hemlines and narrowing shapes of A-line skirts to save on fabric.

Did you know that the term “leotard” came from a male gymnast, Jules Leotard, who first wore the tight bodysuit while performing his trapeze act?

“Because of its molecular structure—strong but elastic—
polyester can spring back into shape after wear
and look just as awful as when new.”

Readers will appreciate Albee’s humor, too. In the 1953 section about the advent of polyester that gave way to the horrible fashion trend of the leisure suit, her caption reads: “Because of its molecular structure—strong but elastic—polyester can spring back into shape after wear and look just as awful as when new.”

The final section asks the reader “What Can You Do?” and offers suggestions on looking at labels, making good choices, and being prepared to answer questions from your grandchildren. “You’ll have some explaining to do!” she warns, next to a photo of sagging jeans! Love it.

This is one of the most interesting fashion books for teens that I’ve read because of the integration of history and the fun explanations of the fashions and how they functioned (or didn’t!). I’m very happy to live in an age of polar fleece and pants that allow you to sit down, let alone being allowed to wear them at all because I am female! I do long to wear a beaded flapper dress just once, though. Sigh.

nonfiction-mondayFor more nonfiction blog posts for children and teens, check out the Nonfiction Monday website every Monday.

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About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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