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Building Your 18th Century Costume History Bookshelf

Nobody freak out, but I’m going to try to start blogging again! These days, so much of the conversation around historical costuming happens on YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram, but I and some other costumers have been discussing how much we miss reading. Blogs allow for longer content, are easier to find and refind, and crucially for those of us who just can’t get into videos, are easy to SKIM. Oh how I love skimming!

So with that in mind, expect some Actual Posting around here. I’ll try to keep up with my current projects, but also go back and discuss some projects I never blogged. I’ve been thinking about what else I can contribute to the historical costuming conversation, and realized that one of my specialities is research. Professionally, I’m an academic librarian who works with history and fashion students, and I write academic research in the history of dress (so far, peer-reviewed journal articles, but I’m working on a book). Furthermore, I think that with so much online content, many may not know just how useful and crucial books can continue to be to your knowledge of historical costume — both the aesthetics of fashion but also their cultural context, as well as cut and construction. Given that my area of expertise is the 18th century, I thought I’d start off with a discussion of the books that I consider core to my bookshelf for this era. This is just a start, I’ll do some future posts on more specific areas of eighteenth-century fashion.

First a note on sources: don’t forget that your local public and academic library are likely to have copies of all of these, and there are numerous used booksellers that may have it in stock or will allow you to set up alerts in case it comes into stock. My favorite used book source is Bookfinder, because it searches across numerous new and used booksellers (including Amazon and AbeBooks) to allow you to find the best price. I am linking to Amazon below, but it’s not the only source!

Today I’m going to focus on core resources for eighteenth-century Western European fashion, primarily British and French. Down the line I’ll talk about other areas of the world, as well as specific sub-topics, for this era — and maybe other eras too?

1. 20,000 Years of Fashion: The History of Costume and Personal Adornment (François Boucher)

So this may seem like a weird place to start, but François Boucher’s 20,000 Years of Fashion remains one of my go-to Survey of the Whole Shebang books, despite having been first written in 1966 and updated in 1987. He does a really thorough job of: giving you the big picture of fashion change in European history, getting specific on different eras and sub-eras, giving you the social/cultural context of fashion, and making sure to include non-dominant areas that had their own specifics. I’m constantly recommending this to students, and I refer to it frequently. There’s a lot of interesting images, too, which you don’t always get with these older survey books.

2. Dress in Eighteenth-Century Europe 1715-1789 (Aileen Ribeiro)

Ribeiro has written a number of books on eighteenth-century fashion. She’s an expert art historian and approaches fashion that way, more from visual media than from the objects themselves. Nonetheless, she does a great job of explaining the arc of European fashion history across the century, bringing in a lot of social and cultural context, and making sure to include regions beyond Britain and France. If you’re going to buy one of her books, make it this one.

3. Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette (Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell)

This relatively recent publication (2015) is truly a masterpiece. Chrisman-Campbell knows her stuff, having written her PhD dissertation on Rose Bertin. Her book focuses in on the late eighteenth century, from about 1770-ish until the Revolution. She does a masterful job both discussing the specifics of fashion during this era, as well as presenting a really interesting take on the fashion culture of Paris and Versailles. Tons of beautiful images and a really interesting read.

3. The Art of Dress: Fashion in England and France, 1750-1820 (Aileen Ribeiro)

Another of Ribeiro’s books. This one essentially augments Dress in Eighteenth-Century Europe by getting even more in-depth in the visual arts side of fashion. There’s still a lot of “what was worn when,” but Ribeiro focuses much more on England and France specifically as well as painters and other artists and their role in fashion and costume.

4. Dress in France in the Eighteenth Century (Madeleine Delpierre)

I debated whether or not to include this book, as it’s relatively short and low on visuals. Nonetheless, Delpierre does such a good job summarizing French fashion across the century that I felt it needed to be included.

5. Historical Fashion in Detail: The 17th and 18th Centuries (Avril Hart and Susan North)

Focused specifically on the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum (London), this book is porn for the costumer, baby. You’ll look at extant garments in a whole new way as your eye is directed towards the smallest details, like stitches, trims, buttons and buttonholes, and more. There’s something about being directed to focus in that’s revelatory. Don’t miss this one.

6. Patterns of Fashion 1: Englishwomen’s Dresses and Their Construction C. 1660-1860 (Janet Arnold)

For those of us that are makers, you have to start with Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion. Important note: the School of Historical Dress is coming out with a new, updated edition that will have tons more (color!) photos and information, and I’m sure will be worth purchasing (which you can only do directly through their website). Unfortunately, pre-orders closed before I and many others ordered, so we all have to wait for them to restart ordering once the books are received from the printer. But, Arnold’s research is a classic for a reason, and I can’t not include the book on this list. She includes a number of scaled patterns for eighteenth-century dresses and jackets, and really useful and interesting construction details.

7. Costume Close Up: Clothing Construction and Pattern, 1750-1790 (Linda Baumgarten et al)

If you’d like to know more about eighteenth-century dressmaking techniques, then I highly recommend that you next move on to Costume Close-Up. This book from Colonial Williamsburg also provides scaled patterns for eighteenth-century garments (both men’s and women’s), but it also includes even more construction details that will really help you wrap your brain around how they made it. Whether or not you want to try to recreate those techniques is up to you, but I’ve found it’s much easier to make historical garments when I understand how they approached them.

8. The American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking: How to Hand Sew Georgian Gowns and Wear Them With Style (Lauren Stowell & Abby Cox)

Finally, if you really want to go down the rabbit hole on eighteenth-century dressmaking techniques, the American Duchess guide will walk you step-by-step through making historical garments using period handsewing techniques. The styles span the century and include accessories as well! Cox worked at Colonial Williamsburg for a while, so this book builds on Costume Close-Up, using a “here’s how you can make it” approach (while Costume Close-Up is more “here’s how they made it”).

Which books are your absolute classics for 18th century costume?

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