ed. by Susan J. Vincent. Bloomsbury, January, 2017. 6 vols. ill. ISBN 9781472557490 (h/c), $550.00.
Reviewed April, 2017
Susan Vincent, overall editor of A Cultural History of Dress and Fashion, is an independent scholar and a research associate of the Centre for Renaissance and Early Modern Studies at the University of York. Wrestling a cultural history of dress into fewer than 1200 pages of essays is a daunting task, one Vincent undertakes with mixed results.
A Cultural History of Dress and Fashion embraces a dual organization scheme. The complete work consists of six volumes, each edited by a different scholar, arranged by era: Antiquity, The Medieval Age, The Renaissance, The Age of Enlightenment, The Age of Empire, and The Modern Age. Every volume contains nine thematic sections, with one essay per theme: Textiles, Production and Distribution, The Body, Belief, Gender and Sexuality, Status, Ethnicity, Visual Representations, and Literary Representations. This should allow the reader to choose between researching a time period in depth by reading a single volume, or tracking a theme through time by reading one section of each volume.
A quick glance at the Eurocentric volume titles reveals that the history being traced is primarily that of modern Western fashion. Non-Western dress tends to be consigned to the sections on ethnicity.
The scholarly tone of the essays and the unusual wealth of notes and bibliographic references clearly indicate appropriateness for an academic audience. Each book includes a thorough index. The bindings are solid and strong, and will stand up to years of academic use. Sadly, though there are many illustrations, they are all black and white, and relatively small. It can be hard to make out details. Lack of color in a reference on fashion diminishes the value of the resource. The absence of color when considering culture is also surprising, but colored illustrations would surely have increased the cost of an already expensive set.
The ideas behind the essays have the vividness and color missing in the illustrations. There is no lack of thought-provoking content, and students would likely be inspired to interesting topics for research and writing. Many essays, though, are best read by those who already have a solid grounding in the field. There is little space to introduce concepts or to provide complete surveys. The ethnicity section of the second volume, for example, is restricted to a case study of Medieval Scandinavia. It's a fascinating, rich topic, but one wonders about questions of ethnicity and dress elsewhere in Medieval Europe - not to mention the rest of the world.
Indeed, any reader who follows a topical thread through the set will likely wish for more consistency in overall vision and approach. The belief sections in some volumes address religious dress, while in other volumes they cover morality as expressed in dress, making it impossible to follow either idea through time, as the organization system is supposed to allow. The understanding of ethnicity seems to be different in different volumes as well, with the result that one learns more about how different scholars view ethnicity than about how ethnicity relates to dress over time. The difference in scholarly approaches is, of course, a very valuable discussion in itself.
Indeed, A Cultural History of Dress and Fashion will provoke rich inquiry into how one thinks about the study of fashion. This is the true strength of the set. It would be a useful addition to academic or special libraries with that focus. Those looking for a broader, encyclopedic reference work (of the sort one might expect from the title) will be better served by Joanne Eicher's Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion (Oxford University Press, 2011).