I always love the Book Pairings prompt for Nonfiction November, which in years past has involved pairing a novel (or several novels) with nonfiction that is in some way thematically similar. Last year I took a bit of a steer away from picking a novel by choosing a period drama, and this year I was planning to cheat again, but happily I don’t have to. Rennie at What’s Nonfiction is the host for this prompt this year, and she has made some tweaks to the prompt that make it easier to pair books with whatever strikes our fancy. Instead of a novel, a TV show, or anything fictional at all, I am going to be pairing my books with a Youtube channel I’ve recently been watching a lot – Bernadette Banner, who is a fashion historian and seamstress. I have never really been interested in fashion at all, but I fell down the rabbit hole while I was trying to work out realistic clothing for characters in a project I’ve been working on, and then became so absorbed in the subject matter that I have (of course) been watching Youtube instead of writing…
For a fun place to start with Bernadette’s channel, some of my favourites are: Redesigning Historical Romance Novel Covers to be Actually Historical, Ok but how did the Edwardians WASH these dresses?, and A Victorian Lady’s Pinstripe Waistcoat. (Or, if you have about ninety minutes spare and really want to dive right in, you can watch her two-part analysis of costume historicity in all pre-WWI period dramas released in 2021 – Part 1 and Part 2).
Anyway, in the spirit of book pairings, here are two books on fashion history that have caught my eye since I fell down this rabbit hole:
How To Read a Dress and How To Read a Suit, both by Lydia Edwards. These look like useful reference guides for anyone trying to write, but reviews suggest they are also enjoyable guides to various societal changes over the centuries included.
That’s the historical dress part of the channel – what about the general sewing skills part?
Well, here’s both a machine-sewing and a hand-sewing book: The Sewing Book by Alison Smith, and Make Sew and Mend, Banner’s own recent publication. (I am cynical of Youtuber Books in general, but I’ve found her tutorial videos very helpful, so hopefully it translates into written form!)
I haven’t actually acquired any of these books yet – though I have just bought a (second-hand) sewing machine. My initial aim is just curtains and cushions as I slowly do up my flat, but who knows? Maybe I’ll get inspired to be more ambitious, and The Sewing Book is available through my library, so perhaps I’ll be making my own Victorian Pinstripe Waistcoat in no time…
I need those How to read a dress/suit books to have a better understanding of Regency romances. I wonder if Edwards tells us why, around 1830, ball dresses went from sheer and revealing, to stiff and all covered up. Maybe a King died (G3?) and the new queen was modest.
I think that was probably part of it! That is around when George III died and I think deaths of monarchs were often associated with changing fashions. But there might be a more practical reason – if I have my facts straight, I think Britain was also cooling down between the 1830s and 1850s after a couple of reasonably warm decades. Maybe the new fashions were just warmer!
What a fantastic way to use this prompt, I love your take on this! I feel generally pretty clueless about fashion, but this element is especially intriguing: “reviews suggest they are also enjoyable guides to various societal changes.” Looking at this through the lens of clothing changes sounds absolutely fascinating!
Thanks! Yes, I love learning about social change through various cultural things – normally I have read about food or visual art, but fashion history is a new one for me and one that I think has the potential to be very interesting.
I love the idea of pairing books on fashion history with books about sewing. If you want to pair this with fiction, I recently read The Siren of Sussex and it is SO much about fashion and clothing design – and a great story too.
Thank you for the recommendation! I hadn’t heard of that but the synopsis sounds very interesting.
What an interesting choice of subject! I remember when I first got Blu-ray and was pretty unimpressed, until I watched the 1995 Pride and Prejudice (for the umpteenth time) but this time became fascinated by all the detail in the costumes that was so much clearer than it had been even on DVD. I think the costume dramas keep a lot of these old skills alive.
Yes, I think costume dramas provide opportunities for people to develop and practice their skills that otherwise might fade away – the Youtuber I was talking about used to make historical costumes for the stage, I think. I have never paid attention to the costume details in Pride and Prejudice, but I’ll have to look next time I watch it!
I remember that moment in the movie The Devil Wears Prada when our protagonist is basically saying her boss, played by Meryl Streep, takes fashion too seriously, and Streep’s character shows her historical knowledge:
“This stuff’? Oh, okay. I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh, I don’t know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s actually cerulean. You’re also blindly unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves Saint Laurent, wasn’t it, who showed cerulean military jackets? And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic ‘casual corner’ where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of “stuff.”
It’s probably the only moment I enjoyed in the whole film, because most of it seems geared toward making the protagonist feel stupid, small, and ungainly. But, it did make me curious about the history of clothes.
I liked The Devil Wears Prada – one of the rare instances of a film being so very much better than the book, mostly because of Meryl Streep. I think it did get at something that has always made me rather leery of fashion, which is that it is frequently used as a tool for excluding people or making them feel small. The book seemed to completely buy into Meryl Streep’s view of fashion as essential and integral, whereas I think the film is a bit more sceptical. (Also, the book is just very badly written).
I’ve been listening to a not very serious book called The Meryl Streep Movie Club, which in between the little dramas contains reviews or discussions of a number of her movies including the Devil Wears Prada.
I read something recently about how high fashion somehow trickles down and gets to poorer communities much later, in a way that stands out. The example was that wealthy Asian women used to have nails so long they could not truly function in them, and thus they had staff do everything for them. Now, you see the super long nails in specific communities, and many people view such nails poorly. That was what the article said, anyway. But I think the long quote I shared with you is getting to something similar.
This seems like such a fun rabbit hole to go down! I’ve enjoyed a few books showing how fashion can teach us interesting things about history, especially Queen of Fashion about Marie Antoinette 🙂
It’s a totally new topic to me, but I’m enjoying exploring it (and I have made a couple of things on my new sewing machine, so clearly a productive rabbit hole as well)!