Books Every Fashion Designer Should Read
I never read a book that changed my life, but I did read two scholarly articles on the significance of the corset that launched me on my career and, thus, really did change my life forever.
I was in graduate school at Yale, and my classmate Judy Coffin gave a presentation about two articles in the feminist journal Signs—one by Helene Roberts, which was a standard feminist critique of the corset as a fashion oppressive to women, the other by David Kunzle, claiming that tightly laced corsets could be sexually liberating for Victorian women. It was as though a lightbulb suddenly went on, and I realized: “Fashion is part of culture. I can do fashion history.”
But when I went to the library, with a few exceptions, all I found were either antiquarian studies of “costume history” or fashion journalism. Fashion history did not really exist as a field. So when I began working on fashion, I made myself essentially unemployable—at least by any “normal” university.
The first book that seemed to offer any kind of hope was Anne Hollander’s Seeing through Clothes, but that was art history, and I was in the history department (although I did take some art history classes with Jules Prown and Robert Herbert that had a big influence on my later work). I was a naive graduate student, so when I read David Kunzle’s book Fashion and Fetishism, I thought that meant that the corset had already been “done,” so I wrote my dissertation on the erotic aspects of Victorian fashion—with a long chapter on the corset, that disagreed with both Kunzle and Roberts. That became my first book, Fashion and Eroticism.
It wasn’t until almost 20 years later that I finally wrote The Corset, after organizing a major exhibition on the subject. In between, I wrote what was probably my best book (and certainly the most fun to research), Fetish: Fashion, Sex & Power. Recently, I’ve been writing mostly exhibition catalogues, like Gothic: Dark Glamour.
Over the years, I’ve built up a library of about 2,500 fashion books—including a sub-collection of books by the fin-de-siècle French writer Octave Uzanne, such as La Femme à Paris. Some day, I hope to write a book about Uzanne's ideas about fashion and the femme fatale. I've also spent many happy hours in libraries around the world, from the Bibliothèque des Arts Décoratifs in Paris to Berlin’s Lipperheide Costume Library and the library at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. In 1997, I founded Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture, which has helped provide an interdisciplinary forum for new publications on fashion.
I don’t know how many fashion designers actually read books; it’s my impression that a lot of them are “visual” people, who would rather flip through magazines and look at pictures. On the other hand, most fashion books do have pictures, and there are certainly many intelligent and creative designers who might be interested in discovering some intriguing titles. To that end, I’ve drawn up the following list of books on fashion that I think are really brilliant.
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- Seymour Chwast in Conversation with Steven Heller at The Cooper Union, May 24