Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

Why'd They Wear That? Fashion as the Mirror of History

Why'd They Wear That? Fashion as the Mirror of History

Sarah Albee
For ages 10 and up
National Geographic Children's Books, 2015   ISBN: 978-1426319198

Fashion is one of those things that many people write off as being ‘irrelevant’ or ‘unimportant.’ Who cares what we wear so long as our clothes protect us from the elements. The interesting thing is that the clothes that people have worn at different times throughout history have been a reflection of their times. In short, looking at the clothes of the past tells us something about our history, and this in turn gives us a picture of how we have evolved.

For example, until relatively recently the clothes people wore always indicated what their place was in society. So, when people looked at each other they knew if they were aristocrats, the landed gentry, members of the working class, or farmers. When the lines between the different classes became blurred, rulers tried to reinforce the ranking system by putting laws in place that made it illegal for people who weren’t of a certain class to wear finer and richer looking clothes. The well-to-do and upper classes did not want those lower than them in the social ladder to look like them.

When you look at what women have worn over the centuries you can see, very clearly from their fashions, how women began to assert their independence. In the 1920’s hemlines came up, arms were exposed, and constricting undergarments were replaced with more comfortable lingerie. Earlier, women, those who dared, wore bloomers to ride bicycles, which some people thought was quite shocking. Here again, women were striking out against the social conventions that said that they had to mince around is long hobble skirts, and wear underclothes that made it hard for them to breath let alone exercise.

The author of this fascinating book takes us through history, from the ancient world to modern times, showing us how and why the fashions that people wore were influenced by the times in which they lived.

In the section of the book dedicated to 1600’s to the early 1800’s we learn that the cotton trade influenced both politics and fashion. Indeed, the trade it was responsible for the terrible slave triangle that connected Britain (fabric), with Africa (slaves), with the Caribbean and North America (cotton fiber). For the sake of a cotton fabric millions of Africans were enslaved, and the ramifications of this shocking trade can still be felt in our world today.

In the chapter about the Industrial Revolution we read about corsets, those undergarments that synched in women’s waists to such a degree that women had trouble “eating, breathing, standing, walking.” Bending down was simply impossible. At this time women also wore crinolines, enormous hoops, under their dresses. It is likely that the fashion was begun by wealthy and high ranking women who wanted to “stand apart, both literally and figuratively, from the common throngs.”

Though men’s clothes during this time were not as restrictive as those worn by women, they were still uncomfortable. In addition, they were not colorful, as the fashion was for men to wear grey and black. To counter this, men started wearing garments called smoking jackets when they were at home. These long, comfortable coats were colorful and men could move around freely when they wore them.

This is the kind of book that readers can happily read from cover to cover, or they can dip into it and read about topics that interest them. Every spread is packed with fascinating articles about history and fashion, which are broken up by wonderful annotated illustrations and photographs. This book would make a wonderful gift for readers who have an interest in fashion, or history, or both.