Real Clothes, Real Lives: 200 Years of What Women Wore
“one of the best books on fashion history to come out in the last year. Through excellent photography and sharp, insightful text, this tome packs more of a punch . . .”
While history books often focus on remarkable figures that helped shape a given time, real history is best viewed through the lens of the average person. It is more telling (and interesting) to find the diary of a woman who lived through the Dust Bowl than to read another biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt in order to understand America in the 1930s. Real Clothes, Real Lives: 200 Years of What Women Wore is the type of book that attempts to provide insight into such daily lives of unremarkable women throughout American history.
Drawn from over 4,000 pieces in the Smith College Historic Clothing Collection, Real Clothes, Real Lives eschews focusing on glamorous items worn by the elite in favor of mundane, utilitarian ensembles created for everyday use by working class women. While most museum collections desire pristine pieces for their collections, many of these items show wear, repair, and alterations—and are all the more interesting for having those “defects” because they tell a richer story of how the garment was used.
Divided into chapters like “Public Dress” and “Service,” each section focuses on how different social uniforms emerged depending on one’s socioeconomic situation and regional location. Arranged chronologically, examples within these categories take up two or three pages, providing vivid pictures of a garment’s construction alongside digestible text of what the object tells us about the life of the woman who wore it. They reveal how fabric scraps were clearly saved for future repairs, creative uses of earlier outfits upcycled to act as backing or parts of fresher styles, economic hardship, weight gain, and how different types of work impacted a woman’s fashion choices. Never has the history of the housedress been so fascinating.
As a professional costume designer and teacher, Kiki Smith (not to be confused with the famous artist of the same name) writes in an approachable style that brims with excitement over these pieces. Her lack of academic jargon makes the book notably easy to use, either as a reference text or simply a pleasurable coffee table book. It is also worth noting that while the majority of the outfits lack proper provenance, she attempts to incorporate diverse voices through her photographic selections to accompany each garment, showing how Black women wore similar ensembles in their daily lives throughout history.
Overall, it is arguably one of the best books on fashion history to come out in the last year. Through excellent photography and sharp, insightful text, this tome packs more of a punch than most other releases around comparable topics. Beyond the notable scholarship that went into its publication, Real Clothes, Real Lives also serves to bring more attention to Smith College’s incredible collection of historic clothing, a resource one hopes additional scholars will make good use of in the future.