Subscriber OnlyBooksReview

All the Rage: Insightful, engaging and sometimes very funny account of women’s lives transformed through fashion

It’s an important reminder that fashion is anything but trivial

All the Rage: Power, Pain, Pleasure – Stories from the Frontline of Beauty, 1860-1960
All the Rage: Power, Pain, Pleasure – Stories from the Frontline of Beauty, 1860-1960
Author: Virginia Nicholson
ISBN-13: 978-0349014319
Publisher: Virago
Guideline Price: £25

“Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than to merely keep us warm. They change our view of the world, and the world’s view of us.” Nearly a century after Virginia Woolf wrote these lines in her novel Orlando, her great-niece Virginia Nicholson has written a brilliant new book telling the story of how women’s lives were transformed by fashion from the 1860s to the 1950s.

During the first three decades of the 20th century, the western world saw one of the most profound social revolutions in history. In a relatively short period of time, women went from covering up almost all of their bodies to exposing their arms, legs and backs in skimpy swimsuits. One of the most compelling aspects of Nicholson’s book is how she explores the ensuing tension between liberation and regulation; having been freed from our corsets and long cumbersome skirts, we are now expected to be our own corsets, moulding our increasingly exposed bodies to conform to new ideals and expectations.

Throughout the book Nicholson examines another recurring source of tension and anxiety – the genuine joy women often found in self-adornment, and the fact that we are still constantly judged by our physical appearance, however we choose to present ourselves.

Nicholson, the author of four brilliant social histories of women’s lives in the 20th century, does this through the experiences of real women (and some men). This ensures that the big ideas she explores are always rooted in fascinating and, in some cases heartbreaking stories, from 19th-century “professional beauties” to beauty entrepreneurs of colour, from film stars to miserably dieting 1950s schoolgirls. Along the way, she shows how the standards set by affluent white women were facilitated by the labour of less privileged women, and how working-class women and women of colour found their own ways through the fashion and beauty maze.

READ MORE

You don’t have to be, as I am, passionate about fashion history to enjoy this hugely enjoyable and thought-provoking book. Insightful, engaging and sometimes very funny, it’s an important reminder of what Virginia Woolf told us back in 1928: that fashion is anything but trivial.