Better Counseling through Costume Books

A delectable collection of fashion books.

People rarely ask me for advice, but if they did, I’d be ready!  (At least as long as they limited their questions to the area of recommendations on costume history books.  And my answers would be limited to the 20 costume books I have picked up at used book stores.  And all the stakeholders recognized that sadly, when these books talk about “World Fashion”, they mean only Europe and sometimes North America. But if all those conditions were met, my advice would be really helpful.)

Let’s see how it would go, shall we?

Dear Busy Bee,

For excellent portrayals of all kinds of historical people, I recommend What People Wore by Douglas Gorsline.

However, it only goes up to about 1900.  So try to get your kids to pick prospectors rather than astronauts.

Sample page from What People Wore.

Dear Artiste,

The Mode in Costume has beautiful line drawings of the various styles, without weighty source material.  It was written and illustrated by R. Turner Wilcox, who was fashion editor for Women’s Wear Daily from 1910 to 1915.  She wrote many books about costume.  This one was initially published in 1942, and has gone through 64 editions!

Sample page from The Mode in Costume.

A sample page from European Costume by Doreen Yarwood.

Doreen Yarwood’s book European Costume is very similar, but she intersperses background information with her drawings, and you may find that distracting.

Dear Dal-Gal,

Fashion: The Mirror of History is the book for you.  Bring it along in your suitcase, even if you have to leave your blow dryer at home!  It is deliciously gossipy, the font is huge and the pictures large enough to be seen across the room.  You can take turns reading it aloud while you sit by the pool, watching the kids.  Here is a sample, talking about the design house Maison Worth:

Members of the international upper classes collided daily in Worth’s salon on the rue de la Paix, which was drenched in the perfume of massed camellias.  Through this setting flitted a bevy of jolies demoiselles in the master’s latest styles, all of them executed in black so that the client could choose a sleeve here, a flounce there.  Social harmony was demonstrated by a group of young men with curled hair, pearl tiepins, and English accents, like so many embassy attaches…

Such was the palace of the emperor of fashion, as highly respected as any artist of his period.  He, in fact, never doubted that his art was as august as that of sculpture, painting, or musical composition.  He composed reclining on a sofa, a cigar in his mouth, while a demoiselle of the maison played selections from Verdi operas.  His more favored clients were allowed no more choice in what he created for them than a canvas has in choosing its paints. ‘I am a great artist,’ he claimed. “I have the color sense of a Delacroix, and I create.  A dress is the equal of a painting.’

This giant book provides the conversational grist of at least three years of People magazines and six weeks of Wendy Williams’ show.  Enjoy!


Dear Port Arthur Author,

Your best bet is The Book of Costume by Millia Davenport.  This book is stuffed with details — if you need to know where the jewels on 16th-century English hats were placed, how large patch pockets on 17th-century French overcoats were, and who had brown silk tree stumps embroidered onto her petticoat hem, you will find the answers here.

You might even make use of some of Davenport’s other historical details — on every page you find things like sumptuary laws, pirates, ratkillers and onion sellers, painted men and spotted women!  Borrow a few details and your novel will surely win an award for authenticity.

A second source is 20,000 Years of Fashion by Francois Boucher.  This book is very similar to The Book of Costume, but it has updated information and many large color pictures.

Two warnings!  One — The Book of Costume has two volumes, often bound together.  Make sure you get both, or you will have to leave your characters stranded in Spain in 1587.  And Two — The Costume Society of America has a Millia Davenport Publication Award, and if you start reading every book on that list, you will be in danger of falling down the research rabbit hole and will probably never actually write your novel.

Dear Future Academy Award Winner,

My top recommendation for you is Survey of Historic Costume:  A History of Western Dress.  It looks boring, but it covers many aspects of fashion in a structured, concise way that will allow you to find the information you need quickly, without having to wade through detail you don’t need.  Each chapter has a very short chronology and historical background, and information on the fabrics of the time (so you won’t make mistakes like dressing Cleopatra in pink polyester).  It also includes specialized topics like headresses, costume for children, and military dress; there is also documentation of the dress of ethnic minorities, which is rarely found in other costume books.  It even tells you how to pronounce the names of garments so you will sound like a pro in no time!

However, it is not highly illustrated, and only 76 illustrations are in color.  So if at all possible, I would also flip through 20,000 Years of Fashion for more color illustrations.

Sample page from 20,000 Years of Fashion by Boucher.

And if you have to construct the costumes yourself, you might want to look at the cutting diagrams in:

Historic English Costumes and How to Make Them by Talbot Hughes, which was first published in 1913, and then reproduced by Dover Books in 2009.  Talbot Hughes was an English portrait painter who collected clothing as reference material for his art.  His collection was purchased by Harrod’s Department Store in 1913, and donated to the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Its original title was Dress Design, and this whole book is available online at Project Gutenberg, so no money to spend there!

Another book that offers cutting diagrams is A History of Costume by Carl Kohler, also a Dover reprint, originally published in 1926.  It is very similar to Hughes’s book, with line drawings, photos of actual garments, and patterns, but focuses on the European continent.

Sample page from A History of Costume by Kohler.

Of course there are many other books about the technical aspects of costume construction, including Patterns of Fashion by Janet Arnold, After a Fashion by Frances Grimble, and The Costume Technician’s Handbook by Rosemary Ingham and Liz Cooney.

And please please please, since you are from Edinburg, Texas, in our beloved Rio Grande Valley, please see if you can work some vegetable costumes into your productions!  See you on the red carpet!

— Textile Ranger

Dear Weary,

My delightful prescription for you is Fashion: A History from the 18th to the 20th Century, the Collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute.

It has gorgeous photographs of actual clothing, along with art reproductions.  The information is there if you want it, but it takes a back seat to the images.  Also, the book has a soft cover and binding, making it very easy to handle, when you are stretched out on your chaise longue with a cup of tea.

One caveat:  I am not personally a fan of the collection items from the 1960s and beyond, so for stress relief, I stick to the first two-thirds of the book.  The creative details and workmanship leave me refreshed.


Dear Lookie,

Here you go!  You can scroll over the top of each illustration to see which book they come from.  The red illustrations are from John Peacock’s Costume 1066 – 1990s — I find the black-lettered labels on top of the red line illustrations to be very distracting.

— TR

Dear Bookie,

Of course!  Here it is as a PDF.  (It is in landscape orientation so it really wouldn’t work here in the post.)  Here’s to many additions to your library!

— Textile Ranger

Costume Books Chart 

(click on the title once to get to its page, then click on the title again to see the actual chart)

Okay, back to reality.

One of my goals for the year was to go through all my costume books and evaluate them for differentiation and/or duplication.  I thought they would be mostly similar — I mean, if the topic is lace collars or panniers, how many different ways are there to approach the subject?  But I was surprised at how unique in tone each book was.  I was also in awed by the amount of research that went into these books, even during the depths of WWII.

All of these books are easy to locate, either from used booksellers or libraries.  I hope you can find one you like!