In the wake of André Leon Talley’s new book, The Chiffon Trenches, we present a guide to fashion literature – from tell-all biographies to inspiring essay collections
This week, former Vogue editor-at-large André Leon Talley released his long-awaited second autobiography. Titled The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir, the book is reported to lift the lid on Talley’s relationship with Anna Wintour, alongside his friendships with the likes of Karl Lagerfeld, Andy Warhol, Roy Halston Frowick, and Madonna. But it has also been said that The Chiffon Trenches chips away at fashion’s glamorous veneer, with Talley outlining the discriminiation he faced as a working-class black man from America’s South with a place at the top of the industry’s table. While you wait to get hold of a copy, we’ve compiled 30 non-coffee table fashion titles to add to your reading list now; including inspiring collections of essays and interviews with designers, to critical explorations of fast fashion, and tell-all biographies.
1. The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled into the Spotlight and Made History by Robin Givhan
In 1973, The Battle of Versailles Fashion Show was held at Versailles to raise funds for the palace’s restoration. French designers – such as Yves Saint Laurent and Marc Bohan at Christian Dior – went head-to-head with American fashion heavyweights, including Halston and Oscar de la Renta. Guests such as Liza Minnelli and Josephine Baker graced the front row with their presence. Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan recounts the event with encyclopaedic detail in her 2015 book, as well as discussing how it changed American fashion forever.
Diana Vreeland’s autobiography, written in 1984 and edited by George Plimpton, the then-editor of the Paris Review, is everything you might expect it to be – and yet, never ceases to surprise. Including such Vreeland-isms as: “Toast should be brown and black. Asparagus should be sexy and almost fluid,” and, “peacocks, I always say, are unbelievably beautiful – but they’re vulgar”. Bill Blass said that reading D.V. is akin to spending a night in the company of its author.
A collection of essays and stories on 2010s fashion, art, and media, Sleeveless is a love/hate letter to the city and culture of New York. The second book from Natasha Stagg, it draws on her experience of working as an editor at V magazine and consulting for fashion brands, alongside musings on fashion as metaphor – including the red Autumn/Winter 2017 thigh-high Balenciaga knife boots as a symbol for the political climate.
Written by Susannah Frankel, AnOther Magazine’s editor-in-chief, this collection of in-depth designer profiles was originally published in The Independent, The Guardian and Dazed and Confused between 1996 and 2001. Here, Frankel speaks candidly with the likes of Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood, Tom Ford, Rei Kawakubo, Yves Saint Laurent, Valentino and more, offering insight into the worlds of some of the greatest minds in fashion history.
5. The Fashion Conspiracy: A Remarkable Journey Through the Empires of Fashion by Nicholas Coleridge
Published in 1988, Nicholas Coleridge probes the names in fashion who exemplified this decade of excess. Interviewing over 400 people for the book – including Paloma Picasso, Tina Chow, Ralph Lauren, and Calvin Klein – The Fashion Conspiracy is as much an anthropological study as it is a witty commentary on glitz, glamour and extravagance.
Former editor-in-chief of Vogue Paris, Joan Juliet Buck, was the first and only American woman to hold this position. Her memoir was published in 2017, and outlines her extraordinary – and at times dramatic – life spent between London, New York, Paris and Los Angeles. The Price of Illusion is a moving account of a woman in search for authenticity behind the beguiling veil of fashion and glamour.
Often considered the father of modern fashion, master couturier Paul Poiret penned his autobiography in 1931. The son of a draper, Poiret established his own fashion house in 1903, quickly rising to prominence through a combination of innovative draping techniques and way with marketing. King of Fashion is an essential read for those who want to discover more about the man behind this brand.
Released earlier this year, Fashion Work by curator and writer Jeppe Ugelvig explores the relationship between art and fashion through the genre-bending practices of DIS magazine, Susan Cianciolo, Bless and Bernadette Corporation. Examining the pocket of time between the 1990s and the present day, Ugelvig taps into a part of recent history that is yet to be explored in as much depth by any other critic.
Wall Street Journal columnist and fashion writer Teri Agins explores the seminal shift from haute couture to mass-marketing, deep diving into the mechanics of the contemporary fashion industry. With case studies on Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren and Isaac Mizrahi, this book – written at the turn of the millennium – is a fascinating exploration of fashion as business.
From teenage model and muse of Norman Parkinson to creative director of US Vogue, Grace Coddington’s memoir tells the story of a girl from Wales who made it big. With her story spanning a period of over 50 years, the book is beautifully illustrated with Coddington’s signature drawings, and photographs of the flame-haired fashion heroine.
A blistering account of how fast fashion is destroying the planet, style writer Dana Thomas’ Fashionopolis often poses more questions than it answers. Bringing to attention the environmental and human impact of brands such as Zara producing mass-market fashion at cheap prices, alongside an investigation into the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster, this book is an essential part of anyone’s fashion library.
Fashion journalist Alicia Drake tells the parallel stories of Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent. The two designers were once friends growing up in 1950s Paris, but drifted apart before ultimately becoming rivals. Drake describes this history in great detail, following the decadence of the 1970s along two divided paths.
Roland Barthes was constantly drawn to the subject of clothing and fashion and his 2006 book The Language of Fashion comprises a collection of the critic and semiotician’s essays on the subject, including writings on the meaning of colour, the power of jewellery, and the style of André Courrèges and Coco Chanel.
First published in 1966, Mary Quant’s autobiography outlines the early stages of her life and career, from her childhood in Blackheath and evacuation during The Blitz, to opening Bazaar on The King’s Road in 1955. “Life was a whizz! It was such fun and unexpectedly wonderful despite, or perhaps because of its intensity,” she writes. “We were so fortunate with our enormous luck and timing. We partied too – there were no real boundaries.”
“He was the master of us all,” said Christian Dior said of Cristóbal Balenciaga upon his death in 1972. It is from this quote which Mary Blume’s biography on the designer takes its title, a book which pays tribute to the man behind some of the most breathtaking fashion the world has ever seen.
Founding editor of W John Fairchild had a column in the back of the magazine under the pseudonym ‘Countess Louise J. Esterhazy’. Chic Savages, published in 1989, is an equally campy look at the fashion scene of this time (featuring salacious gossip about Donald and Ivanka Trump, and the designers that they favoured).
17. The Glass of Fashion: A Personal History of Fifty Years of Changing Tastes and the People Who Have Inspired Them by Cecil Beaton
Illustrated with over 150 of Cecil Beaton’s drawings, The Glass of Fashion is an 18-chapter-long memoir telling the story of the larger-than-life characters that inspired the fashion photographer – from Coco Chanel, to his Aunt Jessie. Out of print for years (it was first released in 1954) the book is now readily available and much-loved.
American fashion designer Elizabeth Hawes was a woman with many strings to her bow. A union organiser, women’s rights activist, and champion of ready-to-wear, Hawes wrote her first book in 1938, titled Fashion is Spinach. In it, she provides a critique of fashion and style through her signature witticisms, including quips such as: “I would not be doing justice to the future of clothes if I did not point out that practically all psychologists who have bothered to consider the subject agree that eventually we will all become nudists.”
Self-taught New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham was known and beloved for his street-style portraiture that he pursued right up until his death in 2016. In the wake of his passing, Cunningham’s estate was put in order, and a secret written memoir discovered. The manuscript, named Fashion Climbing: A New York Life, was edited and published two years later, with a preface by Hilton Als. Als draws comparisons between Cunningham’s storytelling and that of Truman Capote’s in Breakfast at Tiffany’s – except the former, of course, is based on real-life events.
20. The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour, and Greed by Sara Gay Forden
Lady Gaga is reportedly starring in the Ridley Scott-directed screen adaptation of Sara Gay Forden’s book. The singer is set to play the ex-wife of Guccio Gucci’s grandson, Maurizio Gucci, who ordered a hit man to murder Maurizio in 1995. Forden’s tell-all account of the Gucci dynasty is certainly not a title to leave off your reading list.
Part of Imogen Edwards-Jones’ Babylon series, Fashion Babylon follows an unnamed London-based designer over the period of six months, starting at the fashion show and ending with the collection on the rail and on the covers of magazines. A funny, gossip-laden, yet informative read.
The Independent once described Peter York as “the Delia Smith of cultural studies … [whisking] up clever dishes of Zeitgeist analysis and pop-culture assessment”. York’s 1983 book Style Wars is a series of essays which does just that, examining the influence of class on the way we dress. With chapters on Sloane Rangers, Post-Punk and ‘Mayfair Mercs’, the book is brilliantly of its time, yet remains just as interesting in 2020.
A triple biography telling the interconnected story of three different women – New York intellectual Esther Murphy, poet Mercedes de Acosta, and fashion journalist Madge Garland – All We Know is a meticulous examination of the lives of each protagonist through the lens of modernism and sexuality.
Academic and critic Shahidha Bari stops to consider the symbolic language of clothing in Dressed: A Philosophy of Clothes, which was published last year. Pinpointing cultural and historical moments and trends, Bari offers a comprehensive and compelling study on the way we get dressed.
Helmut Newton’s autobiography was released just months before he was killed in a car accident on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles in 2004. The book recounts Newton’s early life in Germany – picking up his first camera at the age of 12 and fleeing the country under Nazi persecution – to the period where he earned the title of ‘The King of Kink’ as a fashion photographer in the 1970s and beyond.
Taking Time is a collection of conversations on the subject of time, between the late couturier Azzedine Alaïa and the likes of Marc Newson, Charlotte Rampling, Isabelle Huppert and Julien Schnabel. Donatien Grau collaborated with Alaïa on the book and says: “Each of these interviews is like a couture dress made of words. They truly are a call to be aware of, to be at ease in, and perhaps to change time. Azzedine took time for us. Now let’s take time with him.”
Tina Brown, one time editor of Vanity Fair, recounts her years at the helm of the magazine through the diary entries she kept during that period. Arriving in New York from London in the 1980s, Brown was tasked with the job of whipping the publication into shape, and The Vanity Fair Diaries is an insider look at some of the most famous covers and stories which did just that.
A selection of essays by AnOther’s fashion features director Alexander Fury accompany images taken by catwalk photographer Chris Moore. In this book, Fury unpicks seminal runway moments that Moore captured over his 60-year career – such as Versace Autumn/Winter 1991, Yves Saint Laurent’s final couture show for Spring/Summer 2002, and Thierry Mugler Autumn/Winter 1984.
A window into the singular mind of the godmother of punk, Get a Life publishes anecdotes from Dame Vivienne Westwood’s online diaries that could only belong to her – whether that be paying a flying visit to Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy, driving a tank to David Cameron’s house, chatting eco-politics on the phone with Shami Chakrabarti, or having her yoga session interrupted by Lady Gaga.
Fashion designer Roy Halston Frowick was a complex person, with a complex career to match. Steven S. Gaines gets to the heart of his subject in this 1991 biography, written only a year after Halston had died from Aids. Simply Halston is the first exploration of the man who trademarked himself into becoming a household name, but whose true story was yet to be told.