Art historian Hollander tries to set the record straight about the ""tyranny"" of fashion and to clear its bad name, making...


SEX AND SUITS: The Evolution of Modern Dress

Art historian Hollander tries to set the record straight about the ""tyranny"" of fashion and to clear its bad name, making a reasonably strong case but offering a surprisingly lifeless account in the process. Hollander (Moving Pictures, 1989, etc.) spends most of the book establishing modern masculine sartorial superiority, setting up the contrast between the men's suit, with its brilliant design -- serious, sexy, timeless -- and what, until this century, was mere ephemeral female fashion frippery. From the 1600s until the early 1900s, women's dress became increasingly theatrical and decorative, and received more attention from society (i.e., men), while men's dress set the classical standard. Obscuring female form and motion with tiny waists and voluminous skirts, women's clothing earned fashion the reputation of being manipulative and deceptive. Hollander asserts, to the contrary, that fashion is an ""imaginative art."" Only in the early 20th century, however, did women's fashion become realistic and dignified. The introduction of short skirts after WW I gave coherence to the female form (and made exposing legs, and thus the wearing of pants, possible). It is just recently, Hollander argues, that female dress has begun to set any significant standards for Western fashion: ""Women finally took over the total male scheme of dress, modified it to suit themselves, and have handed it back to men charged with immense new possiblities."" Sex and Suits has several major weaknesses, however. Most frustrating, given the book's historical scope (from the Greeks to the Gap), is the profusion of generalizations (""In general, people have always worn what they wanted to wear; fashion exists to keep fulfilling that desire"") and occasional preposterous pronouncements resulting from her attempt to divorce shifts in fashion from social forces. Also, her take on the relationship between gender and contemporary fashion is dated. Still, despite its un-hip feel, a coherent defense of fashion's integrity.

Pub Date: Sept. 9, 1994


Page Count: 224

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 1994