Writing about fashion is more than who wore what, or “what’s in” versus “what’s out.” As the definition of fashion has expanded from the insularity of haute couture into an increasingly socially and economically diverse movement, writing about style has become equally complex. The best fashion writing is able to tell you as much about the clothes you wear as it does about how society operates, connecting moments to movements. It’s meticulous work in a messy world, and more often than not, it’s labor done by women.
In honor of Women’s History Month and the #SeeHer campaign, we asked six style writers, editors, critics, and journalists to tell us about their favorite fashion writing. Together, they are some of the smartest women working in fashion today, and they’re keenly aware of the trailblazing work that preceded them. The books, blogs, and articles they recommend directly engage with a complicated industry, and they cleared the way for the rest of us to talk about what women are wearing, what women are writing, and why.
Julianne Escobedo ShepherdCulture Editor, Jezebel
I recommend spending a few days reading the entire archives of Threadbared, a fashion blog published by cultural scions and academics Mimi Thi Nguyen and Minh-Ha T. Pham from 2007 to 2014, and Pham's photo project Of Another Fashion, which further explored the styles of women of color. In their time, both were antidotes to typical style-blog fanfare and cast fashion writing on the internet in the serious tradition where it belongs; both were a salve to the deep erasure of women of color in fashion, which is now only marginally better. Of Another Fashion, in particular, reminded us of cultural and personal histories through style in a way that I still find profoundly nourishing, that our mothers and grandmothers, all chic, will never be forgotten. This book is also great.
Cintra WilsonAuthor of Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling American Style
Of all of the books I read while researching my last book (Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling American Style) the one that I found gave me the most revelations and forehead slaps per page was Fashion, Desire and Anxiety by the brilliant Dr. Rebecca Arnold. Only relatively recently has fashion begun to be widely recognized as both an art form and serious intellectual topic. Dr. Arnold has been one of the spearheads whose work has legitimized fashion as the surprisingly rich prism it is for exploring the social sciences. Fashion, Desire and Anxiety, now one of Dr. Arnold's older works (it was published in 2001), is still fresh and formidable — she has a riveting grip on the socio-anthropological and psychological implications of fashion, and unpacks with fearless clarity the semiotics, sexual politics, and class tensions that resonate in fashion both on and off the runway. I believe this book to be absolutely indispensable to anyone who wants to look beyond fashion's corsets and maquillage, and into the deep brain-hooks that really make it tick.
Connie WangSenior Features Writer, Refinery 29
Cintra Wilson was the first fashion critic I read who made me feel like criticism was something that was much more than just “bad taste” versus “good taste.” It was common sense and politics and pop culture — and I loved that she approached the column from a perspective in which “you could just go thrift that?” was a valid dig (one of my favorite Critical Shopper pieces she did was of the Isabel Marant store, which sold basically the same army jackets as the vintage store across the street). Her book, Fear and Clothing, is a must-read — the first chapter talks about the styles that spring up as a defense against feeling alone and weak. The chapter begins with a line I think about every time I sit down to write: “We are all at our most psychologically naked when we have our most deliberately selected clothes on.”
Alice HinesFreelance Writer and Editor
There are so many stereotypes surrounding what it means to be a woman in fashion that it's hard not to internalize some of them. For what seemed like ages, I thought that smart fashion writing didn't exist, or perhaps couldn't exist. The thing that changed my mind is Vestoj, a journal for which I now edit. It's text-based and ad-free: both borderline insane for a fashion outlet, but also what enables some real risk-taking in terms of what we publish. We've interviewed Rick Owens and Thom Browne, yes, but also rag traders, reverends, western-wear tailors, and porn stars. There are essays on Haitian dictator aesthetics, the visual legacy of the Heaven's Gate cult, and most recently, in a piece that's the best I've read in ages, the clothes celebrities are buried in. It contains both the phrases “a great middle finger in Cartier diamonds” and “buried inside a Ferrari and wearing a negligee,” only a small part of what makes it a masterpiece in my book.
Thessaly La ForceEditor in Chief of Garage Magazine
Fashion can be such a contemporary industry that it can be difficult to remember how it started. There are so many women I want to recommend, but I hope you will start by reading Robin Givhan's The Battle of Versailles. Givhan is a Pulitzer Prize–winning fashion critic for the Washington Post, and I've long been reading her work. I spotted her in Paris this last week, calmly sitting in her seat, waiting for the show to start. Her book is about a runway showdown between the French and the Americans (Givenchy versus Halston; Cardin versus de la Renta) that resulted in giving the Americans the momentum they needed to be a more legitimate presence in the fashion world. She also spends time explaining the career of Stephen Burrows, one of America's best African-American fashion designers. He's not very well-remembered now (though Michelle Obama once wore one of his pantsuits — she is just too amazing), and Givhan's book is worth reading just to know about him. His clothes were very disco — you needed the perfect body to wear one of his dresses, which always were designed with the most remarkable colors.
Haley MlotekStyle Editor, MTV News
Robin Givhan is consistently my favorite fashion critic, and I have to second what Thessaly said above. What I love most is the way her writing about fashion is always, always writing about the world around fashion — there is no article of clothing free of cultural context, and Givhan can always find the subtext underneath the styles. I just read The Battle of Versailles for the first time, and it is, in my opinion, a masterpiece of this kind of fashion writing: In a tight 276 pages, Givhan lays out the months, years, and decades that led to November 18, 1973, the night that Stephen Burrows, Halston, Oscar de la Renta, Anne Klein, and Bill Blass showed the gatekeepers of the French couture world — including Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, and Marc Bohan — what American ready-to-wear was capable of. The event itself was high-fashion drama (is there any other kind?), but the book is just as much about the issues of race, gender, and class that the 1970s-era fashion industry was trying to address. These are, still, the issues of the present-era fashion industry, and Versailles has the parallels necessary for us to understand how fashion, an industry defined by cyclical returns to form, is held back by its own history.
Also, there is some truly hot gossip. My favorite is how all the other designers hated Halson because he insisted on referring to himself in the third person.