The best books about fashion and the fashion industry

The Books I Picked & Why

The Ten: The Stories Behind the Fashion Chassis

By Lauren Cochrane

Book cover of The Ten: The Stories Behind the Fashion Chassis

Why this book?

What connects the most important fashion styles over the last 80 years? The answer: the stories of those who made these clothing items fashion and trends, often globally. Lauren Cochrane illustrates lavishly this with a wealth of exactly these stories and plenty of pictures. These 10 classic fashion items are part of the universal language of style we all somehow know but not too much about them: The White T-shirt, Miniskirt, Hoodie, Jeans, Ballet flat, Breton top, Biker jacket, Little black dress, Stiletto, Trench.

Familiar, commonplace, ubiquitous - each piece has become an emblem of a certain style, carrying its own connotations and historical significance. They aren't just clothes - our social history is contained within these perfect 10 pieces. They're vessels that hold the history of style, politics, and identity: while trends may come and go, these are here to stay.

The Ten puts fashion in context. Showing how certain pieces are just as pervasive on the catwalk as on the street, Lauren Cochrane's crucial volume defines the fashion items that make up your wardrobe, and how they got there, providing the perfect excuse - a pedigree, a narrative, a realness - for the reader to wear them time and time again.

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Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel's Secret War

By Hal Vaughan

Book cover of Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel's Secret War

Why this book?

When the first Australian exhibition of the work of fashion designer Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel (1910-1971) opened at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne in July 2021, the focus was on the legendary fame of the Parisian fashion icon. Chanel was and still is the figurehead of haute couture. At the same time, as historians and observers interested in fashion have noted with disappointment, the Nazi past of the fashion icon Chanel is still being ignored.

Yet the author and journalist Hal W. Vaughan uncovered the facts in his book facts that are not read with pleasure in the Parisian fashion scene.

In this explosive narrative, Hal Vaughan pieces together Chanel's hidden years, from the Nazi occupation of Paris to the aftermath of the Liberation. He uncovers the truth of Chanel's anti-Semitism and long-whispered collaboration with Hitler's officials. In particular, Chanel's long relationship with 'Spatz', Baron von Dincklage, previously described as a tennis-playing playboy and German diplomat, and finally exposed here as a Nazi master spy and agent who ran an intelligence ring in the Mediterranean and reported directly to Joseph Goebbels.

Sleeping with the Enemy tells in detail how Chanel became a German intelligence operative, Abwehr agent F-7124; how she was enlisted in spy missions, and why she evaded arrest in France after the war. It reveals the role played by Winston Churchill in her escape from retribution; and how, after a nine-year exile in Switzerland with Dincklage, and despite French hesitant investigations into her espionage activities, Coco was able to return to Paris and triumphantly reinvent herself - and rebuild the House of Chanel.

It is a tragic fact, that the “House of Chanel” and other top international fashion firms, like Hugo Boss in Germany, who collaborated with the Nazi leaders, favour a cover up instead of admitting their collaboration.

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Blood & Banquets: A Berlin Social Diary

By Bella Fromm

Book cover of Blood & Banquets: A Berlin Social Diary

Why this book?

Bella Fromm’s diary is far more than a book of gossip from a fashion reporter who delivers light-hearted columns during peaceful times. Bella started writing about Berlin’s political high society already in 1930. By the time Hitler took over power in 1933, she was a known observer of what the new leaders had in mind. And fashion played always a very important fact in her writing. She still managed to write her articles with skill and bravery.

Her diaries are a true story of a Jewish reporter who became an intimate witness to the rise of Nazism in Germany. Fromm wrote a social column for a liberal Berlin newspaper. Attending luncheons, fashion shows, teas & dinners during the 1930s, she met everybody of importance, including von Hindenberg, Franz von Papen, Goebbels, Goering, Himmler, Leni Riefenstahl, & other political & social figures. In this secret journal, smuggled out piecemeal before she left Germany, Fromm describes her experiences & conversations with this cast of characters that would soon play shocking roles in Hitler's Third Reich. Her diary is today a classic social and fashion historical testament. As much as politics changed for the worst, fashion changed as well. Fromm‘s reporting reflects how fashion style after 1933 became political. That makes her diaries, published in 1990 in New York, so important. Everyone interested in Fashion and society in Germany under Hitler should read her memories.

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Fashion Climbing: A Memoir with Photographs

By Bill Cunningham

Book cover of Fashion Climbing: A Memoir with Photographs

Why this book?

When Bill (William John) Cunningham (1929-2016), son of an Irish Catholic family from Boston, moved to New York at the tender age of 19 in 1948, it became the life-defining step in his career as probably the most famous fashion photographer in the metropolis. He had been interested in fashion from an early age and sold his first hats. After returning from military service in Korea in 1953, he began photographing fashion and writing articles for Women's Wear Daily and the Chicago Tribune.

It is no exaggeration to say that Cunningham's fashion sense and photography quickly shaped a new style of fashion journalism. His "street style" brought fashion, no matter how expensive or luxurious, into the world of everyday life. Cunningham made fashion interesting again only through his point of view and photographs. The quiet, always curious and meticulous Cunningham also became known for his commitment to the gay scene.

“If you study Bill’s career at the New York Times, he emerges as an incognito activist who has celebrated gay pride week after week even as he excused himself from the increasingly sexualized society that he chronicled”, wrote The Cut 2013 about Cunningham. “…Without being partisan or political, he has raised awareness of the vital role of gays in New York’s culture…”, and therefore of New York’s fashion culture. Fashion Climbing is the story of a young man striving to be the person he was born to be: a true original. But although he was one of the city's most recognized and treasured figures.

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The Value of Nothing

By John Weitz

Book cover of The Value of Nothing

Why this book?

Fashion is, without any question, a matter of one's own taste. Or so one would think. But no other successful fashion designer has ever analysed and observed the New York fashion world of the 1950s to mid-60s as mercilessly and literarily as John Weitz did in his novel published in 1970. With his clearly English-influenced men’s designs he kept his distance from New York’s high society. Perhaps this was due to his unusual life path.

John Weitz, born to a famous Berlin Jewish family. To guarantee his education, in 1936 his parents send him to London. After his A-levels, John and a short apprenticeship emigrated to the US and worked after 1944 for the OSS (now the CIA) during the Second World War as an under-cover agent in German-occupied France and witnessed the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp Dachau.

Weitz's reputation as a men's fashion designer had the name recognition of today's Gucci or Ralph Lauren labels. Nevertheless, even at the height of his career, he kept his aesthetic and critical distance from pop icons like Andy Warhol, the super-rich from Florida, or the hippie trends from the West Coast. Reading his novel today proves how clearly Weitz understood the superficiality of fast fashion.

Reading his book one can see how, over sixty years ago, Weitz recognized already the crisis of fast fashion. He brilliantly articulates the mixture of media, pseudo-excited style hype, hypocrisy, and monied aristocracy forming the background of the “nothingness” of the New York fashion world. Nevertheless, anyone who’s interested in understanding fashion trends, the manner in which fashion shapes society and the culture of the time cannot avoid his novel.

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