The best books about the history of fashion

The Books I Picked & Why

Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times

By Elizabeth Wayland Barber

Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times

Why this book?

Women’s Work is considered a seminal text in the study of fashion - whether that’s costume history, the culture of fashion, the history of textiles, or even the intersection of labor and feminism. If you’re interested in the study of garments, in learning why thread and cloth and sewing were so important in the past as well as why it continues to be important today, there is no better place to get started. This book has been popular for decades for a reason. Women’s Work helps to restructure and reorient your thinking around what we wear, a necessary component to understanding fashion.


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Fashion History from the 18th to the 20th Century

By Taschen

Fashion History from the 18th to the 20th Century

Why this book?

Fashion is, of course, a visual medium. It’s also one with a very long history. If you want to get familiar with what people have been wearing for the last few centuries, this is the book. All the garments are taken from the Kyoto Costume Institute, a place I hope to visit one day. I’ve read this book cover to cover several times (even accidentally purchasing it more than once!), and I consider it an essential volume in my research library.


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How to Read a Dress: A Guide to Changing Fashion from the 16th to the 20th Century

By Lydia Edwards

How to Read a Dress: A Guide to Changing Fashion from the 16th to the 20th Century

Why this book?

Like my previous recommendation, How to Read a Dress is heavy on the visuals, but unlike my previous recommendation, this book gives you the language to describe and talk about what you’re seeing. If you’re ready to move beyond the basics and get a little more detailed in your study of fashion, How to Read a Dress is the perfect next step.


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Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present

By Alison Matthews David

Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present

Why this book?

From poisonous gowns to flammable petticoats, Fashion Victims shares the dark side of fashion history. What was the human cost to those beautiful gowns, both in terms of the wearers and the makers? This book is a little grimmer than my previous recommendations but no less interesting. A fascinating read.


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Underwear: Fashion in Detail

By Eleri Lynn

Underwear: Fashion in Detail

Why this book?

Of course, I can’t put together a list of fashion books without dedicating one of them to lingerie. Underwear: Fashion in Detail was one of the first lingerie-focused books I purchased (the other was Valerie Steel’s The Corset, unfortunately no longer in print). Full of amazing photos and equally amazing diagrams, if you want to learn about lingerie specifically, this is where to start.


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