100 Years of Fashion
By Cally Blackman
Be it pre-WWI and flapper gowns in Downton Abbey, or the green halter dress that Keira Knightley donned in Atonement, costume drama (post-Victorian costume drama, in particular) continually draws us in. Last month, Jacqueline Durran won the Oscar for Best Costume for her work in Anna Karenina — a strikingly modern production not just because Keira Knightley practically drips vintage-style Chanel jewelry, but also because the story, set in the late 19th century, was purposefully presented with a good measure of 1950s couture tailoring. What is it about 20th century fashion that fascinates us so much?
Cally Blackman’s 100 Years of Fashion may not fully answer this question, but it does provide some historical fashion context for our favorite films, as well as background for last month’s flurry of fashion shows. The book is hardly heavy reading: it is basically a picture book, designed to give us an overview of the transformations in women’s fashion over recent years. It contains over 400 color photographs and illustrations, and the images are superb. Rather than create a strictly chronological “hemline history,” Blackman groups together different themes within certain time periods — “high society,” “bohemian,” “uniformity,” “youthquake,” “outsider.”
For pre-1960s fashions, Blackman includes iconic, star-studded images such as Dior’s models posing for his Spring/Summer 1957 Fuseau collection, Coco Chanel photographed by Man Ray, and Audrey Hepburn modeling Givenchy. Other, lesser-known images have equally interesting stories behind them: one photograph is of the Royal Ascot (a highlight of the English social calendar) in 1910, shortly after the death of Edward VII. This “Black Ascot,” named as such because court and society were still in mourning, inspired the costumes that Cecil Beaton designed for the famous race scene in the 1964 film My Fair Lady.
The post-1960s images in the book include explorations of sportswear throughout the past forty years, as well as more recent avant-garde fashion moments: Alexander McQueen’s Spring/Summer 1999 runway show involving model Shalom Harlow being spray-painted by robots, and outfits in Viktor & Rolf’s Autumn/Winter 2007/8 show each having their own lighting and sound systems. Architectural and texturally experimental pieces by Issey Miyake (for example, as in The Face, an advertisement for Spring/Summer 1985), Yohji Yamamoto, and Comme des Garçons round out a section on conceptualism.
One of the most interesting sections of the book is on “fame and fashion,” which features models and actresses such as Brigitte Bardot and Kate Moss as well as public figures such as Jackie Kennedy, Princess Diana and Kate Middleton. An image of Elizabeth Hurley in that Versace safety pin dress reminds the reader of a garment’s ability to launch its wearer into the limelight.
Although the fame and fashion section is a short one, it is a fitting conclusion to the book. The rise and fall of celebrities confronts us nearly every day, and the elevation of status that high fashion often advertises is almost universally known. Blackman puts it elegantly: “what we wear is no longer dictated by class, status or occupation, but is a reflection of money, aspiration and fame. Fashion, like society, is more fluid but not necessarily more democratic.”