Reading books about fashion is a little like reading cookbooks. Some people enjoy descriptions of the ingredients and the finished product. Others don't see the point unless they specifically need directions for something. Still others don't read cookbooks or fashion books and pretty much get by with winging it. I think the results may be better in a dish than an outfit.
There are fashion books that scare me with titles like "How Not to Look Old", "Color Me Younger" or "Frumpy to Fabulous". There are books that sound like way too much work: "I Have Nothing to Wear: A Painless 12-Step Program to Declutter Your Life so You Never Have to Say This Again". I hope a stiff drink is included in those 12 steps. Some books are way too personal: "What I Wore: Four Seasons, One Closet, Endless Recipes for Personal Style". Isn't the idea, especially at a certain age, to embrace your own reality?
Fashion history is something else. You can never learn too much about the history of style and popular culture as told through fashion. I started by reading autobiographies of Elsa Schiaparelli and Cecil Beaton when I was 10. The covers must have appealed to me (Schiaparelli's was shocking pink), and I'm still a sucker for a good cover. Diana Vreeland's autobiography, "V", is a delight whether or not it's all true. I love finding vintage fashion and beauty books such as the 1947 "How to Maintain Beauty, How to Achieve Glamour and How to Improve Personality". Imagine all that information in one volume of only 128 pages!
The best fashion books speak to you in a voice you enjoy hearing. They whip you into a froth of closet cleaning or relight your fashion flame. Most of all they get you to observe, think and set yourself on a good path. I look through every new book that comes out. I pass on many of them. Some I don't think I can live without. Some I really can't live without. Here is that list:
"What Shall I Wear?" by Claire McCardell is pictured above. This will be nearly impossible for you to find. One copy is currently listed on Amazon at $199.99. I stole mine from the public library in 1957 and returned it 50 years later, anonymously, after shelling out an exorbitant amount on a copy to keep. In all those years I didn't regret my act of thievery. Surely one person was never so influenced by any book outside of the bible. If my writing sounds like hers, I apologize. I learned to think like Claire McCardell and see the world of fashion through her eyes. She was an amazing designer who died in 1958, way too young. She was Donna Karan when Donna was in grade school and lent her name and design skills to everything from sunglasses to car interiors. Her contributions still resonate with us today: twill, jersey, denim, gingham (in both dressy and casual fashions), easy wrap dresses, halter and cowl necklines and ballet slippers as street wear. But "What Shall I Wear?" is not about Claire; it's about us, the American woman. It's about dressing for the real life you live. The advice is both timeless and forward-thinking. I once xeroxed a copy for Isaac Mizrahi (a worthy successor to Claire in my opinion) and have done the same for other special people. A few years ago there were rumors this book would be reprinted— alas hasn't happened yet.
"The Pocket Stylist" and "Style Evolution" by Kendall Farr are to the point and full of great information (and illustrations). The highlight of the former is dividing what-to-wear into body types. A big chunk of book may not apply to you, but the better to amaze friends and family with your knowledge. You see, fit is everything. No matter how gorgeous or pricey, if it doesn't fit, it won't flatter. If it doesn't flatter... "Style Evolution" is the book I wish I would have written myself, directed towards us ladies who will not go gentle into fashion night (or day). Downside: you would need really big pockets to carry these around.
"I Love Your Style" by Amanda Brooks concentrates on style based on types (bohemian, classic, etc). There are wonderful photos (many not seen before) of style icons. A great manual of Style 101, along the way we share Amanda's quest for her own style (also with photos). She absorbs like a sponge and would be first to admit she has made mistakes in the past and will probably make more in future. What I love is that she is not afraid to try. We are lucky Amanda was able to write this book before she began her present job as Style Director for Barney's New York.
"The Little Black Book of Style" by Nina Garcia is the first of Nina's four fashion books. They are all concise, informative and fun to read. Nina is the acerbic judge on "Project Runway" and esteemed fashion director of Marie Claire magazine, but she comes across as charming and chatty. She takes her job seriously, but she loves the subject.
"Love, Loss and What I Wore" by Ilene Beckerman, a small book illustrated by the author, is less a fashion how-to than a memoir through clothes. Ilene forever remembers what she wore at pivotal moments in her life. You will start remembering too. The book has inspired a still running off-Broadway play.
"I Don't Have a Thing to Wear (the Psychology of Your Closet)" by Judie Taggart and Jackie Walker is everything you ever wanted to know about being well-dressed. There is so much good information it may be more than you can digest at once. Consider it the penultimate course in dressing, and bite off little bits when you can.
"What Not to Wear" by Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine
Though they've been quiet lately, at least on this side of the pond, Trinny and Susannah originated the "What Not to Wear" concept on British television (as well as the "tough love" hosting style). Their range of books, from "What Not to Wear" to "Who Do You Want to be Today?" are pithy and fun, especially as they use themselves for models and guinea pigs.
"Life Lessons Learned While Shopping" by Amanda Ford is less about clothes and more about the act of shopping— and its many psychological implications.
"Why We Buy— The Science of Shopping" by Paco Underhill is for the inveterate agoraphile. Basically a business book (that's the section you'll find it), it's nevertheless fascinating. Did you not think we are being manipulated as soon as we enter a store? If you didn't, read this book and think again.