Fashion by Christopher Breward is an academic, critical, and thoroughly researched history of western fashion in the last two centuries — but, more than that, it’s an examination of how fashion came to be deemed worthy of critical study. I was fascinated throughout by the questions Breward raises: how does fashion reflect culture? How does it create culture? Who is responsible for creating fashion in the first place?
Breward describes how fashion is produced and how it’s marketed, with a focus on key players, from Louis XIV to Christian Dior to Vivienne Westwood. His first chapter, “The Rise of the Designer,” narrates how fashion grew to be associated so strongly with individuals, and subsequent sections describe the work of such designers, their effects on cities, their responses to historical events. These chapters are great to read, with revealing facts and wonderful images.
But perhaps the most fascinating elements of the book deal with how fashion is used. With a brief examination of the life of George Bryan Brummell, Breward describes the rise of dandyism, whereby the unconnected and obscure could gain power through sheer expertise in matters of personality and dress.
While Breward maintains readers’ interest with names and stories, the ghosts of the unnamed — garment workers, assistants, and especially consumers — haunt every chapter. Breward writes a complex, accessible history, but he never denies the importance of the personal, the everyday, the shopper.
Reading Fashion as a home sewer, I couldn’t help wondering how exactly sewing fits in contemporary fashion. We are, clearly, consumers of fashion, but we’re also producers, if only to a small degree. What role do we play in defining and developing contemporary style? How do current trends influence our work?