Five stylish women in five vignettes-cum-case studies: how they lived, how they dressed, and how the closet reflects the soul. Canadian biographer Fowler, author of quartets and quintets of women's history (Below the Peacock Fan: First Ladies of the Raj, 1987, etc.) groups those old stylish chestnuts—Marlene Dietrich, the Duchess of Windsor, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis—with a pair of lesser-known clothes horses,Empress Eugenie Bonaparte of France, wife of Louis Napoleon; and Belle Epoque writer and socialite Elinor Glyn. All five, Fowler states, ``wrote their life stories in fabric and feathers and furs.'' After a beginning academic essay defining style as ``a mode of expression which is laudable in its order, conspicuousness, consistency and cohesion of separate elements,'' she launches into five tales that utulize the rather less academic device of inhabiting the minds of the subjects: ``Now, she could feel his hot, heavy-lidded gaze on the black serge stretched taut across her breasts.'' Each heroine's wardrobe is described vis-Ö-vis her social, political, psychological, and sexual environment. Clothes are a metaphor: Jackie's pillbox hats were crowns for America's royalty; Eugenie's huge crinolines (ten feet of fabric at the hem) represented the ``sham'' that was the Second Empire in France—solid on the outside, but with no stability. If you can get past all the socially relevant chitchat, there's the good stuff: the clothes and jewels. These women had closets bigger than houses; they traveled with hundreds of trunks; they were never far away from servants with ironing boards. And best of all, they were self-invented and self-dramatizing. Elinor Glyn had five tiger skins, each one given to her by a different lover. Jackie wore evening gloves with 20 buttons. Dietrich had a swansdown coat with a four-foot train made out of 2,000 dead birds. Cruel and not environmentally correct, yes. But a nice dose of vicarious opulence for those of us who buy our duds at the Gap.
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