Monday, March 16, 2015

Nonfiction Monday: Why'd They Wear That? Fashion as the Mirror of History by Sarah Albee

A few years ago I went to a museum exhibit of Impressionist art, with the fashion of the time period to accompany it. It was amazing, but I drove my friends nuts. While they were oohing and aahing over the amazing clothes, I was wondering how long servants had to spend ironing those millions of pleats. So, when Sarah Albee first announced that she was writing a book on fashion, I knew I was going to love it. She has a genius for looking into the small, practical aspects of history and relating them to the bigger events.

The book opens with a foreword by Tim Gunn and an introduction by Sarah Albee, explaining how the book is arranged and a general overview of how fashion and history are intertwined.

The main body of the book is divided into time periods, beginning with "The Ancient World", which includes Egyptian fashion, silk, Celts, and how fashion affected the Roman world. "The Middle Ages" focuses on Europe and the cost and expense of clothing, but also talks about how the Crusades affected European industry and includes snippets of information about Japanese styles. "The Age of Exploration" expands fashion across the globe, including dyes and their effect on the economy. "The Renaissance" focuses on the extravagant European styles, including poisonous make up (which isn't as historical as you might think!). "The Age of Reason" contrasts the clothing styles of the wealthy versus the poor, what colonists wore and how it related to the beginnings of revolution and how clothes were (or weren't) laundered. "Revolutionary Times" explains the importance of beaver pelts in the colonial economy and the growing use of cotton and its effect on the politics and economy of India and the American colonies. "Marching Toward Modernity" covers the mid-1700s to the early 1900s and includes a wide range of information about changes in children's fashions, military fashions, and the growing importance of the cotton and textile industry. "The Industrial Revolution" takes this information and digs deeper, talking about the rapid changes in the world that were affected by the fashion industry and in turn made major changes in fashion from more freedom for women's clothing to labor conditions in sweatshops. There's also a fascinating section on how the discovery of synthetic dyes made a drastic change in clothing styles and their economic and class significance. There are also sections on swimwear, athletic wear, fads in women's hats that affected wildlife, and more. The final chapter "World at War" takes readers through the radical changes in the world during the two world wars and the how the political and economic changes were reflected in clothing.

Final sections encourage thinking about how our clothing choices today reflect our world, from mass-produced clothing in third-world countries to wearing fur. Back matter includes a time line, final notes from the author, bibliography, further reading and resources, index, and credits for the extensive illustrations and photographs that fill the book.

Sarah Albee's great skill is in making history come alive and showing how the sometimes distant and unreal events like wars and politics, affected everyday people; not to mention how everyday people and events affected larger events. Of course kids have always wondered exactly how you went to the bathroom in one of those giant hoop skirts or how a knight in armor went to the bathroom (the answer...well, would you stop in the middle of battle to take all your armor off so you could go....)- but did they ever stop to think about how people fastened their clothes with no buttons, zippers or Velcro? Or how the cotton they might see growing in the fields or wear every day had a major effect on world events? It might even start some kids thinking about where their clothes come from and how they can make more informed choices.

Verdict: Copious photographs and a constant stream of interesting, weird, and gross facts will keep kids' interest, even if they aren't history or fashion fans, and by the end of the book they'll not only be amused, they'll also have learned some subtle lessons about how the small choices we make affect the world around us. Highly recommended.

ISBN: 9781426319198; Published 2015 by National Geographic; Review copy provided by publisher; Donated to the library

1 comment:

Ms. Yingling said...

If you liked this, definitely take a look at Sneaker Century. It's a bit more manageable in length-- I suspect my students will use this more for research, but they've read the sneaker one cover to cover!