Colin McDowell, chief fashion writer at the Sunday Times and founder of Fashion Fringe, a major initiative supporting young designers, has just published The Anatomy of Fashion: Why We Dress the Way We Do, a glossy history of clothing as signifier of sex and power. Here, an assortment of ancient Sikh turbans.

A scantily clad Mata Hari performs the Dance of the Seven Veils, 1906. "Like mesh, sheer fabrics reveal while appearing to cover," writes McDowell.

Marie Antoinette's peacock plumed headdresses were one tiny detail of a vast wardrobe of frills and bustles in muted pastels. Sometimes eating cake and being royal got tiring, though, and the French queen and her ladies played at being milkmaids in simple white muslin dresses. Her games of dress-up came to an end in 1789, when her three rooms of clothing at Versailles were destroyed in the Revolution.

Buddhist monks' saffron robes and shaved heads are part of an age-old sartorial and spiritual tradition.

"Hello Boys: The One and Only Wonderbra." This 1994 billboard, featuring model Eva Herzigova, was blamed for a number of car accidents--supposedly it distracted male drivers.

Zandra Rhodes, princess of punk, in her trademark eye-popping color pallet.

“Skirts and other loose garments can hide a multiplicity of sins--and also the various strategems used to achieve the ideal shape, such as the many petticoats, horsehair, hoops and underpinning that swelled out the crinoline ofthe late 19th century,” writes McDowell.

A London skinhead sticking it to the man in the 1980s. The markings on his forehead and his appropriation of American working-class style--braces, boots, and denim--were characteristic of a new punk movement that's since gone so mainstream it was the theme of this year's annual Met gala.

NWA's matching denim duds in 1988.

The Anatomy of Fashion by Colin McDowell is out now, published by Phaidon Press.

Co.Design

Why We Dress The Way We Do

From caveman animal skins to Lady Gaga's meat dress, our clothing choices make a statement far greater than style.

In the millennia since humans first started wearing animal skins, fashion has evolved to include bustles and bustiers, KISS’s spiky platform shoes, a pubic hair runway show, and Duchess Beatrice’s weird pretzel fascinators. In an incredibly wide-ranging new book, The Anatomy of Fashion: Why We Dress the Way We Do, acclaimed fashion writer Colin McDowell explores sartorial questions far deeper than the usual what’s hot/what’s not. Examining clothes as symbols of sex and power, he asks why the human body shape, which doesn’t vary much in form, requires so much variation in its dress.

More than 500 sumptuous photographs feature styles from Padaung neck coils to Mata Hari’s Dance of the Seven Veils to Marlon Brando’s too-tight T-shirt. In a unique structural approach, McDowell dissects the body into 13 parts and details how each has been adorned throughout history. Herewith, a few highlights:



Hot Heads
As the center of perception and personality, the head has “always been revered as the most important part of our anatomy. Ancient peoples considered it possessed magical powers,” writes McDowell. “Why did a suntan replace a pale, peaches-and-cream face as a sign of a high-class woman? Why did men shave their heads so that they could wear closer-fitting wigs in the 17th century--or so that they can wear a beanie hat today?” he asks. Marie Antoinette’s peacock-plumed headpieces are juxtaposed with '70s blue punk spike hair and the hot pink harajuku wigs of contemporary Tokyo.

Hips Don’t Lie (Unless a Bustle Is Involved)
In his ode to hips and everything in between them, McDowell harkens back to the days of bustles and codpieces, when displaying a bare ankle or calf was a titillating transgression. “Skirts and other loose garments can hide a multiplicity of sins--and also the various strategems used to achieve the ideal shape, such as the many petticoats, horsehair, hoops, and underpinning that swelled out the crinoline ofthe late 19th century,” he writes. Also pictured in this section: the Wild Gals of the Naked West, posing in feathered hats and assless chaps; and Tupac’s exposed boxers, jeans slung low under his “Thug Life” tattoo.

Looks Into the Light
Shiny metallic textiles had their moment in the '60s, when the space race was on and astro-glam was cool. Until now, though, actual luminescent clothing has generally been limited to black-lit clubbers and sci-fi characters. When fashionable Italian noblewoman Marchesa Luisa Casati dared to wear an outfit spangled with working lightbulbs, the costume short-circuited and she narrowly escaped death by electrocution. But, McDowell predicts, modern chemical technology may mean risk-free glowing clothing is in our near future.

Beauty Bends
McDowell reveals that in 3,000 BC, Egyptian women would highlight, not hide, the spidery varicose veins on their legs. In 1560, Elizabeth I set a fashion for using face powder made of white lead held in place with egg white--the opposite of the sun-kissed Hollywood starlet contemporary ideal. And still today, in a painful beauty ritual, the Mantawaian people of the remote Sumatran archipelago file down women’s teeth into rows of sharp triangular fangs. The moral of the story: However freakishly you choose to manipulate your body, someone, somewhere will probably find it beautiful.

The Anatomy of Fashion: Why We Dress the Way We Do is available for $62 here.

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5 Comments

  • Donnie

    stopped reading after "In 40,000 BC, humans started wearing animal skins to hide their shameful nakedness", i.e. stopped after the very 1st sentence, as it gave me a comprehensive idea of author's intelligence. And it's not about 'shameful nakedness', but about the date as well

  • Ostrea

    That is not a spinning wheel. It's a ratchet for tightening the corset
    laces. If that identification came from the book, I have to wonder about
    the quality of the research.

  • Frank Adams

    Fix this link from the home page. Had to find the page through a Google search. Getting 404 pages from clicking home page links a little too often.

  • ArmandoCcs

    "...to hide their shameful nakedness". Really??? Only an American would write that sentence.

  • Frances

    I think this'll be an interesting read, but the first sentence is bullshit. They started wearing animal skins for warmth and protection, possibly camouflage as well. At the very least, in Western culture, we didn't start to become 'self-conscious' until Classical times, when when leaves were used to cover the genitalia of statues. Otherwise, our bodies were revered and idolized, as they always should've been!