Book Review: “Vintage Fashion and Couture: From Poiret to McQueen”

The holidays are here and if you are still searching for the ideal gift for the fashionista in your life, you need look no further.  “Vintage Fashion and Couture: From Poiret to McQueen” is a lavishly illustrated decade-by-decade history of couture from the 1900’s to the present.  The author, Kerry Taylor, started as an auctioneer at Sotheby’s when she was just 21 and now runs her own auction house specializing in textiles and costumes.  She shares the knowledge and history of couture that she has gained in her career, coupled with a comparative sense of the values of the various pieces featured.  Taylor even gives a relative rating of the value of the vintage items shown.  Her 224-page book has hundreds of photographs and illustrations, showing key styles from each decade from 1900 on, as worn by fashion icons of the time. 

Camille Clifford

The book begins with the early twentieth century and a photo of Camille Clifford, the original “Gibson Girl”, seated in a full skirted, floor length dress demonstrating the ideal of feminine beauty in 1905: an hourglass figure with a “towering coiffure.”  The limited number of photos of the ankle-length styles of the early 1900’s gives way to the roaring twenties, with the trends of rising hemlines, exotic influences from China and Egypt, and the success of Coco Chanel.  Taylor points out that few of the silks of Chanel survived, making them more desirable but obviously more expensive.

Joan Crawford

The 1940’s are characterized as austere and innovative.  The war forces people to make do with what resources were available, recycling draperies as dresses, and raiding attics for old fabrics that could be used as raw material for new fashions. Taylor laments the loss of “many beautiful 18th century dresses” reused for new styles.  Hollywood glamour appears, with photos of stars promoting films, including Rita Hayworth in a scarlet dress with shoulder pads from You’ll Never Get Rich, Joan Crawford in a an evening ensemble with “exaggerated padded shoulders” from Humoresque, and Lauren Bacall with a bare midriff from To Have and Have Not.  The 40’s end with Christian Dior, termed the savior of French Haute Couture, with tips on collecting vintage Dior and the look and appearance of details such as labels, to help determine when they were created.

Lauren Bacall

Highlights from “The Luxurious Fifties” include Yves Saint Laurent and his first collection for Dior.  Taylor continues her history of couture, with market reports for collectors of vintage, covering the revolutionary sixties, radical seventies, and eclectic eighties. It’s an ambitious approach, with many trends to mention.  Taylor makes it work by focusing on select designers of importance, along with photos of fashion trendsetters such as Twiggy, Jackie Kennedy, David Bowie, and Princess Diana. 

This coffee table book ends with a how-to guide to vintage collecting.  Taylor advises only buying pieces that you love, and gives tips on how the vintage market works.  Her knowledge of the auction market is supplemented by her love of the subject.  One of her best tips: don’t stand near fires or hot lights wearing vintage sequin gowns – they will melt!

– Rhonda Erb

Rhonda Erb

Rhonda Erb writes about fashion, travel and lifestyle from a New Yorker’s perspective in Better Bets. A self-confessed Instagram addict, her work has also appeared in such publications as Runway Magazine. Follow her at: Instagram: @betterbets Twitter: @betterbetsny tumblr:

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