Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Book Review: John Peacock

Costume: 1066 to the present (original version: 1986, this version 2006)

The Complete Fashion Sourcebook: 2000 illustrations charting20th century fashion (2005 – previously published as decade by decade sourcebooks)

This is a review of three of John Peacock’s books on fashion history, although I personally feel they should all be reviewed together, for reasons I shall explain.

Peacock’s fashion history books are arguably an essential reference that should be part of any vintage enthusiasts collection, but they are also flawed and in some ways frustrating. Essentially, they provide a pictoral journey through fashion year by year (or era by era in the case of the older historic fashion), which is a very effective way of seeing how fashion evolved over time and a very useful tool for pinpointing the particular time a particular style started to be used. Learning about fashion history and different styles is as much about what you learn with your eye as what you read – understanding the line and cut of each era only really comes from looking at both images and original clothing. The Peacock books help you to do this; they are not wordy treatises on what and why things were fashionable but are immensely useful for training your eye to how clothing developed. They contain a wealth of information and detail and I find myself going back to them again and again.

Costume: 1066 to the present provides as the title suggests a walk through how clothing developed since 1066 right up to 2005 (in the edition I have), in this case timeline ordered by English monarchs. It provides images of the clothing of the aristocratic and wealthy merchant classes. It provides an equal representation of men’s and women’s clothing and also a useful chart over two pages showing the main changes over all the centuries it represents.

The Complete Fashion Sourcebook provides a similar journey but this time year by year from 1920 to 1989. It is divided up by decade with a short introduction for each decade and a split image that eloquently shows the changes in fashion at the start and the end of each decade. It also features charts at the end showing the general trends of each decade, and short biographies of fashion designers of each decade. It features both men and women’s fashion, although there are more images of women than men as Peacock feels that male fashion changed more slowly and less dramatically than women’s. Each year features day wear, evening wear (with wedding wear intermittently shown), sports and leisure wear and either underwear or accessories (including shoes). The focus is again on high fashion, although this probably better reflects what ordinary folk wore during these eras than the content of Costume because of the relative democratisation of fashion during the 20th century.

Children’s Costume covers 4000 years, from ancient times to the present day, although the older the subject matter, the less information there is – only one page each for ancient times and the medieval period - understandable due to the lack of information about those eras, although it’s a little odd that it completely skips over the dark ages (400 to 1250AD). Again there is an emphasis on the wealthy, and due to this many of the clothes replicate adult fashions of the time until you reach the Victorian era where you can literally see in the clothes they wore the ‘creation’ of childhood. I have to take some issue with a comment he makes in the introduction though; that due to dressing them as adults including putting them in corsets “play was something that a child from a wealthy background was neither allowed nor capable of”. Firstly I would question whether all wealthy children were always dressed in the most restrictive, elaborate outfits all the time, just because they posed for portraits in them. Secondly, children pretty much always find ways to play, whether adults allow them to or not; and finally, I can say that from my own experience, stays and corsets, even tight laced, don’t necessarily stop you being physically active (as plenty of burlesque performers demonstrate).

The books do have a number of flaws and frustrations. The first and most obvious is the strange proportions of the drawings. The images are all drawn in Peacock’s own distinct style, which are rather strangely proportioned figures with flat chests, broad shoulders and long thick necks (yes, rather mannish). This is fine for a designer presenting their original designs, but unfortunately is rather unhelpful for presenting historic fashions. For some era’s – the twenties, sixties and eighties – it works well as it evokes the feel and style of those times, but for others such as the 1950s, it makes the images look rather odd and unfamiliar from the style of those eras that we know. For the twentieth century, you can sort of adjust your eyes to take his style into account, but when looking at the older material or eras you’re not so familiar with, you find yourself wondering how accurately it represents what those fashions actually looked like.

Another frustration is that the captions that go with each image are not on the same page but rather at the end of each section, which although it does have the advantage of not distracting from getting a general impression of the flow of fashion, does make it fiddly and annoying to flick between the image you’re interested in and the text. The lack of colour in Costume and Fashion Sourcebook are also annoying since trends in colour and texture are an important part of fashion history, although the colouring in Children’s Costume is lovely and presumably is repeated in some of his other books.

The focus on high fashion is also a little frustrating, as sometimes you’re looking for what ordinary folk wore. I find it particularly jarring when I get to the decades I have lived through and remember, as the fashions shown don’t much reflect my own recollection – but then not that many people wear very high fashion clothing, not exclusively anyway. Also perhaps fashion is so diverse these days that it’s impossible to show every trend in just a few pages.

The issue of his other books is also problematic, in that it’s hard to know which of his tomes are best to buy, not least since he produces yet another enhanced version every few years as far as I can tell! So for example I bought Fashion Sourcebook, which claims to be ‘complete’ when it came out, but since then another version has come out which includes the first two decades of the twentieth century and, I think, is in colour. These in themselves bring together a number of individually printed versions dedicated to each decade, which you can still buy. There are a variety of other version of his works, and it’s tricky to work out which is the best one to purchase or be sure that in a few years time you won’t be frustrated to discover yet another, better version of what you’ve already bought has come out. I would recommend anyone wanting to buy one to carefully research the different versions of his books to make sure they get the one they actually need.

Despite these problems, the Peacock books are still some of the best available at what he does, are endlessly interesting and a very useful reference, especially when you’re getting started at understanding the development of fashion over the years. They’re ones you want to buy to have at hand all the time, rather than just borrow from the library to read once.

John Peacock’s other books include:

Fashion Sketchbook, 1920-60 (foreword by Mary Quant) (1977)