Defining Dresses: A Century of Fashion

Image of Defining Dresses: A Century of Fashion
Release Date: 
October 19, 2015
Reviewed by: 

What is so remarkable about books such as this one is that their titles are often misleading and always highly subjective. One caveat of Defining Dresses is that the selections were made solely from the archive of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, which certainly limited the author’s choices. The misleading part involves expectation and reality.

We expect to see creations that quite literally rocked the world of fashion as well as possibly influenced or started a trend within the sphere of fashion for that specific year, but that could not be further from what we actually get. Don’t get me wrong, there are some beautiful pieces, but remember the pool of choices was obviously not vast or Mr. Dreyfus made some very poor choices.

Case in point is there is not one designer who more clearly “defined” the early 80s than Christian Lacroix when he took the reins at Jean Patou. While there are several beautiful pieces credited to Lacroix there is not one “pouf” in sight and that speaks very loudly about the content, veracity, and accuracy of this book.

The very informed reader might find the book to be noticeably translated from French as the wording seems a bit strained at times; for example, using the term “tubular beads” for what are bugle beads is a dead giveaway. While on the subject of wording, let’s discuss the quote that accompanies each photo, meant to “contextualize” the style but in fact confusing the reader since some quotes refer to the designer, some to coloration, some to some abstract notion of what a dress might be, and some that seem totally incongruous.

To the author’s credit, he includes many designers who receive little to no ink when discussing fashion history and then there are some who were totally unknown to me along with those who would surely be unknown to the casual fashion reader. Again, be reminded that the resource for these choices came from only one archive that does not exactly comprise the cream of the crop. In essence, this is a highly stilted and subjective view of fashion due to the source material.

Even after reading the book and re-reading certain excerpts, the books seems to be trying to define a dress by using quotes from unnamed people and then again by using quotes from publications that only generalize the topic rather than refer specifically to a particular dress. Fashion is not rocket science and to speak of it in abstract or even existential ways is to needlessly confuse the reader as well as making fashion more than it is. The question remains: Was the author trying to define what makes a dress or what makes a dress emblematic of a particular year?