A Side of Dressing Three new books examine the aesthetic, the political and the seamy aspects of fashion.

By Jessica Anya Blau



Fashion is drama. It’s comedy. It’s story. That’s why I love it. It isn’t just about looking good (although that counts); rather, it’s about creating a character and following a narrative. The clothes we wear say something about who we are, or more specifically, who we want people to think we are (and who we want to be). Fashion indulges us in self-fantasy.

When I write in cafés around town, I’m usually in ripped jeans with a James Perse cotton shirt and a pair of wooden-heeled platform shoes. My clothes are comfortable, current and they create the story of me as a woman who likes to drink a good latte while clacking away on her computer in the best-lit corner of Starbucks. On the weekends, I don’t stay in my pajamas long. That sloppy option—the woman who doesn’t brush her hair or teeth and wears elastic waist cotton pants with a fraying, dirty hem—depresses me. I don’t want to be that person, and so I usually get dressed (and put on mascara!) shortly after waking.

When I teach, I wear what I think of as grown-up clothes: Banana Republic slacks, a sleek pair of stacked-heel Mary Janes and a silk blouse. “Yes, I’m professional, I have authority,” I say with these clothes. Like a barrister in her white wig, my outfit helps me feel the part.

Through fashion, one claims an existence, asking to be seen. Still, there are many whose fashion passion is restricted to voyeurism: people watching or leafing through magazines scrutinizing items they’d never wear themselves.

Here are three new books that spotlight fashion from three different angles:

9780714871974In Grace: The American Vogue Years (Phaidon Press), fashion icon and legendary Vogue creative director Grace Coddington celebrates the work of 17 fashion photographers. The Vogue spreads showcased in this slipcovered coffee-table book are all powerfully evocative, narrative in design, sometimes startling, often humorous and always compelling. The Bruce Weber photographs, which include Morgan Freeman and were shot in Miami during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade, are frame-worthy. And the couture scenes shot inside Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont are like stills from an unforgettable film.

51cylajyuml-_sx389_bo1204203200_Style Forever: The Grown-Up Guide to Looking Fabulous (Chronicle Books), by Alyson Walsh, is a lovely little book with whimsical watercolor and pencil drawings by Leo Greenfield. I discovered Walsh through her “That’s Not My Age: The Grownup Guide to Great Style” blog. Walsh, who’s over 50, actively pushes back against the idea that fashion, or looking stylish, is only for the young. “Age is all the rage. And it’s about bloody time,” begins her book. Style Forever is as much a celebration of women d’un certain age as it is a how-to guide for dressing up, or down, without shame or embarrassment. Style Forever is perfect for anyone who wants to indulge in fashion but doesn’t know where to begin

51kg-my0zsl-_sx325_bo1204203200_If you’re not up for looking at fashion and only want to read about it, Focus: The Sexy, Secret, Sometimes Sordid World of Fashion Photographers (Atria Books), by Michael Gross, is a riveting examination of the underside of fashion. Gross digs into the personal and work lives of renowned photographers (several of whose photos are showcased in Grace). This book reads like a collection of biographies—each one more scandalous and scintillating than the last—but is divided by sections with titles like “Decadence” and “Deception.” If you like a good sex story (or sexual orientation story), and if you thrill in reading about cocaine, alcohol, rivalries and falls from grace, this book delivers.

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