Saturday, February 06, 2010

Five Centuries of American Costume by R. Turner Wilcox

Five Centuries of American Costume is a book that covers American dress from the earliest discoverers of America (Vikings and Eskimos) to Native Americans, colonists, early settlers, the military dress of those troops who fought for and against the British in the Revolutionary War, and then all the way through from those times to modern day (Modern day being 1963, when this book was written).

Each chapter has a discussion of the fashions of the time covered, both male and female, formal and informal, and leads up to a series of drawings depicting those fashions, in both clothes, shoes and head coverings. The sections on Native Americans are organized by tribe, in both description and picture, and each picture has text describing what it is portraying, the person and the time period on the bottom left side of the page. For example "Navy Officer in Formal dress- black bicorne hat, blah, blah blah..., 1840".

At the end of the adult fashions up to 1960, there is one entire section for children's wear covering the entire 500 years in one fell swoop. Everything from papooses for the indians, dresses for the Victorian boys and girls and more modern rompers and sailor suits is packed into one fairly small section. The reason for this is that the mode of dress for children has almost always been "Just like adults, but smaller" for most of history. The Medieval era was the first time this changed, pretty much, and boys were dressed in dresses, like girls, for the first 5 or 6 years of life, when they were "Breeched" and put into pants. Making it impossible to tell, most of the time, if the children in a family portrait are boys or girls.

This book was suggested to the author by the Publisher, Dover, who wanted a book with an overview of American Fashions from the discovery of America by Europeans to what was then the modern day. The problem with the book is its size- it's really too small to hold all the costumes that should be in it, and conversely adds some that are more South American than North. Is this book supposed to be about both continents, or just one? If it's North America, why add Incas and Azteca? (You could argue for the inclusion of Eskimos because Alaska is currently part of America, the nation, but as far as I know, no Inca or Aztecs ever lived in America.

My other complaint with the book is that it is too small- the pictures are too few to really show the variations in modern dress, even when you break it down by decade for the 20th century. Military outfits of various periods seem to get more space than fashions of an era, and children's fashions only go up to the 1950's, and then only one boy's outfit is shown. Perhaps you can say that Children's outfits are much less fashionable than those of adults, but you can hardly say that modern children's outfits are less photographed or mentioned, especially in the modern day.

In short, this book is a very short, very small overview of fashions here in America. It's hardly comprehensive or far-ranging, and because all the illustrations are in black and white, it can be very hard to tell what some of the fashions are actually supposed to look like. But, it's not bad, and I'd still recommend it for fashions of olden-days done in a fairly modern drawing style.

No comments: