A woman always sits with her knees together, ankles cleverly crossed.
A hundred years ago, great-grandparents might have whispered this advice. A woman who always moves quietly and stealthily but with purpose, uses care in her dress, never raises her voice and never, ever allows herself to show too much leg.
Knees together, but covered. And if grandma could read Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell’s “Dresses,” she’d be wowed.
Many centuries ago, everyone wore a dress, although it was not called a dress then. It was the toga, the kilt, the tunic, the robe, which could be decorated to reflect one’s status. It was mostly unisex, and very egalitarian.
Then came the Middle Ages, and the double-standard in fashion: men’s clothes allowed to be seen more, while women were considered modest by doing the same.
As the years went by, women wore whatever they wanted as long as it was a dress or skirt. Even in the last century, those who wore pants in public were frowned upon.
Today, Chrisman-Campbell says, many women still prefer skirts, although grandma might have worn a flowing silk gown from designer Mariano Fortuny that harkens back to togas and Greek goddesses. If you play tennis, In 1919, tennis pro Susan Lenglen wore a calf-length sleeveless dress to the point where she may have started wearing long skirts that caught the heels of the ball as she dived for the ball.
Coco Chanel introduced women at any time to the LBD (“Little Black Dress”), which can be dressed up or down, and Elsa Schiaparelli did the same with a wrap dress. Hollywood has made the strapless dress glamorous and teenagers have made it popular. Marilyn Monroe put the “naked dress” in the gossip columns.
Hemlines have gone up, thanks in part to Mary Quant, and they’ve gone down, due to less backlash and a “prairie look.” Everyday clothes sweep the floor before they’re laid out in any length that’s useful for you. And now, Chrisman-Campbell says, we’ve come full circle and “pants are no longer the only option for men.”
Take off the “skirts” and you might notice that leg-smashing clothes aren’t the only thing you’ll be learning. Author Kimberly Christman-Campbell covers a wide range of clothing styles, designers, a great deal of cultural history and, to some extent, women’s history. Those things add to what could be a messy story.
Still, even though this book is full of little-known information to the average fashionista, and what’s here is interesting, you might wonder what’s not included. Large-wardrobe owners may notice holes in the narrative here or there; There’s not much about some influential fashions and others, and a lot about certain designers that the average reader doesn’t know. Furthermore, all of their implications for society and women’s rights seem frustratingly short-sighted at times.
The fashion-conscious reader may find this book too shallow in its coverage and lacking a few stitches overall. A reader who likes clothes and wants a lively, fun and light read will think “dresses” are the bee’s knees.
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