Modern Fashion's Long History

reviewed by David Newton

The History Of Modern Fashion

by Daniel James Cole and Nancy Deihl

It takes quite a lot of chutzpah to title your book "The" History of Modern Fashion, rather than "A" History, as even History is open to interpretation, and I confess to a slight inward smile when I discovered the authors of this impressive tome to be of the American persuasion! Daniel James Cole and Nancy Deihl are colleagues at New York University; he teaches Fashion History and she directs the MA program in Costume Studies, and they display a wonderful confidence in their approach.

The first surprise is their decision to date "Modern" fashion as far back as 1850. Most books of this type would never consider the "Modern" era to pre-date the 20th Century, but Cole and Deihl are very persuasive in their reasoning. They assert that in the middle of the 19th century the Industrial Revolution was at its height and it had a profound impact on the manufacture and publicising of clothes that remains relevant today. Sewing machines had just been invented, distribution became faster and more widespread, and the media suddenly boomed... a framework began that has actually changed very little up to the present day.

The authors also make sure to place fashion into its context and analyse every last detail of what and who could have influenced it. The socio-econo-political climate of each period is outlined first in each section, followed by developments in the Arts and also individual events that would have had a bearing on how people dressed and why these particular clothes were created in the first place.

A pleasingly "modern" take is to give, throughout the book, mini bios of notable women (and, occasionally, men) who were the it people of each era, from mid 1800's Swedish soprano-superstar Jenny Lind to, err... Jennifer Lopez!

This thoroughness extends to menswear and even children's clothes, which I had always assumed consisted of miniaturised versions of adult-wear, and therefore not worthy of note. But nothing escapes the authors' eyes and any and every aspect of how we dress is analysed.

And it's interesting how the author's American-ness results in the US getting probably a greater showing in this book on Fashion History than any other I have read. Usually it's spot-on (let's face it, the USA dominated 20th Century life) but occasionally designers who are mostly footnotes in fashion history are given a little too much prominence (eg in the 1980's Paris section, Patrick Kelly takes precedence over the seismically important Japanese designers Comme des Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto etc).

Where I would say the book falters is in the final "2000s" chapter, which fills 43 pages and doesn't really say anything specific. One can appreciate the problem: we are still too close time-wise to this era to be able to objectively define it and see it as future historians will. The authors go as far as to say that there isn't really any fashion any more and that clothes nowadays look just as they did in 2000 or even 1995. I think this HAS to be wrong, and they will need to update this book again in a few years' time to properly analyse the looks of this decade and a half.

However, that criticism aside, this book is possibly the best and most satisfying volume of its kind I have read. It's truly user-friendly, with its handy divisions, and carries an authority on multiple levels. Cole and Deihl obviously know their stuff and their enthusiasm and knowledge spring from every page. The illustrations are great; some familiar, but many new to these eyes.


Nice and heavy, as important reference books should be, and with a stunning cover image, this will be a great addition to any fashion-lover or student's shelf. And I look forward to the update in a few years' time to find out what the last 15 years were all about!


The History of Modern Fashion by Daniel James Cole and Nancy Deihl is published by Laurence King
Hardback with 480 pages and 600 illustrations
ISBN: 978 1 78067 603 6