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Why'd They Wear That?: Fashions as the Mirror of History by Sarah Albee, forward by Tim Gunn, 186 pp, RL 4

There are so many things I love and am fascinated by in Why'd They Wear That? Fashion as the Mirror of History by Sarah Albee! From the multitude of fascinating facts to the fantastic graphics, I am worried this review could go on endlessly. However, what I love most about Albee's book is what comes at the end, right before a timeline, author's notes, further reading and resources, bibliography and index. A chapter titled, "Why Do We Wear That?: Fashion Disaster, Modern Day," in which Albee asks readers to think about what they wear and how they spend their money on clothes. Noting that the United Stated produces only 2% of the clothing that Americans wear, Albee points out that the "cheaply made, mass-produced clothing, which is what most of us wear," is the least expensive it has ever been, allowing us to "toss away clothes we've barley worn in favor of the newest, latest trend, because we can - clothing is no longer such a large percentage of a household's budget." From there, Albee tells readers how to research where the clothes they buy are made and what kinds of wages are paid and what the standards of living are in the countries where these clothes are made, saying, "It may be worth it to pay a few more dollars for clothing made by conscientious manufacturers."

Why'd They Wear That? Fashion as the Mirror of History is divided into nine chapters covering different time periods beginning with 10,000 B.C. - A.D. 1000. The information in the chapters is more like an appetizer platter than a meal - Albee dishes out tasty chunks of factoids that will whet reader's appetites and hopefully inspire them to learn more. I had no idea that China held onto the secrets of silkmaking for almost 2,000 years before the Byzantine emperor Justinian sent two monks to China in A.D. 552 to smuggle out silkworm eggs and young mulberry shrubs in their hollowed out bamboo staffs. I learned some fascinating facts about the fun loving Minoans and the Mayan proclivity for misshapen craniums - achieved by wrapping a baby's forehead between two boards!

Albee's book is so filled with information, and it seems that, with the history of fashion, one thing usually leads to another, that she is often referring readers to other chapters of her book. A chapter about dying fabric in ancient times and the rarity of the color purple refers to three other chapters - one on the color of clothes and wealth, finding natural sources for the color red and harvesting woad, the plant that creates the color blue. Amazing! Southern Russia, 334 B.C. finds the invention of pants! I have never even thought about the first pair of pants - beyond when it finally became acceptable for women to wear pants!

While much of fashion is also about function - there are many segments on the clothing of war over the years, from Vikings to pilgrims on crusades - I found myself most interested in the seemingly ridiculous things that people wore (and did to themselves) in an effort to show wealth and nobility. From ruffs to codpieces to flea furs - dead animals that Europeans wore in the mid-1500s in an effort to draw the fleas off of their own bodies and onto that of the dead sable or marten draped over their shoulders - people have done crazy stuff to look and feel good. I loved reading about how Roman women prettified themselves, with the help of comestae and parasitae - slaves who would apply make-up and praise their mistress once it was applied. But I was especially intrigued by the hair dyes. In Roman times, black hair dye was made by mixing leeches with vinegar and allowing the mixture to rot in the sun for two months before applying! I also found the facts about hoop skirts and "plumpers" (see above) deeply compelling! Apparently, harsh chemicals used to clean teeth in France in the mid-1700s often resulted in lost teeth. Not wanting that hollow-cheeked look, people would put rounded pieces of cork in their mouths to fill out their cheeks.

I feel like everything here needs an exclamation point at the end, it's so incredible. I hope that my enthusiasm for Why'd They Wear That? Fashion as the Mirror of History will convince you to buy this book for your kids, your classroom, your library or their classroom or their library. And give as a gift! Why'd They Wear That? Fashion as the Mirror of History also makes a great companion to my all-time favorite non-fiction book: What the World Eats!

Source: Review Copy


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