Recently, I listened to Stuff You Missed in History Class’ podcast on undergarments (yep, more on that in a second), and that got me thinking about trends in female fashion—from our stereotypes about fainting women in corsets to the bare knees of flappers. While men’s fashions have some basic consistency, women’s fashions have historically been radical, changing, and even torturous.
Want to learn more about the intriguing evolution of style? This week, read on for a fashionable history lesson.
On Your Kindle
Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War , by Hal Vaughan
Vaughan’s book on Coco Chanel looks at one of the most controversial parts of the famed designer’s life—was she really a Nazi collaborator and spy? If all you know about Chanel is that your mother wears Chanel no. 5 perfume, you will be surprised to learn about the designer’s background and less-than-pretty persona. Born to a poor family and sent by her father to a strict convent after her mother’s death, Chanel propelled herself up the social ladder with ruthless determination.
On Your Smartphone
" The Grecian Bend ," by Rebecca Onion
Slate's historical column, "The Vault," digs up all kinds of interesting historical fads. One of the weirdest is "the Grecian Bend," a banded corset and bustle dress trend that hobbled many women in the mid-19th century. Check out the period illustrations that author Rebecca Onion found, which range from fashion magazines to outlandish cartoons. Because "the Grecian Bend" created an almost S-shaped silhouette, the fashion was widely caricatured for its terrible impact on women's bodies.
On a Podcast
“ Bloomers and Beyond: A History of Underwear ,” Stuff You Missed in History Class
This podcast from one of my favorite programs focuses on undergarments in history, a fascinating and little-understood piece of culture. Because undergarments were often disposed of more than fancier clothes were, we know less about them than other types of clothing. For example—some medieval bras were discovered in Austria recently , dating from a period when bras were thought to be unknown.
Co-host Holly Frye also discusses the role of the shirt in mens’ fashions and why the exhibition of Queen Victoria’s underwear caused some misreporting in the media.
Schiaparelli & Prada: Impossible Conversations , by Andrew Bolton and Harold Koda
Recently, the Metropolitan Museum of Art did an exhibition of clothes from the contemporary designer Prada and from Elsa Schiaparelli, a famous designer of the 1930s whose work is less known today. In her heyday, Schiaparelli designed clothes for Mae West and Wallis Simpson, was one of the first designers to have a bestselling fragrance, and was known for her use of “shocking” pink, a bright fuschia.
According to the curators, there are striking similarities in the designers’ approach to color and cut. See for yourself with this lavish catalogue with images of both women’s work, produced by the museum alongside the exhibit.
Photo courtesy of Francisco Osorio .