A Review of Colin McDowell’s The Anatomy of Fashion
This article was initially published with TACK Magazine.
The image of René Magritte’s 1929 painting, “La trahison des images” (The Treason of Images), revolved in my mind as I read The Anatomy of Fashion, the latest of fashion critic Colin McDowell’s books published by Phaidon. Magritte’s small beige and brown canvas depicts a smoker’s pipe in profile with the counterintuitive phrase Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe) written below in cursive. Magritte’s provocative painting makes the point that art is representation, whatever its grounding in reality and however realistic it may sometimes seem: Viewers can no more stuff and smoke Magritte’s pipe than they can smell and touch Van Gogh’s famous sunflowers. McDowell’s Anatomy is Magritte’s “La trahison” in reverse; McDowell states that his book is “not intended to be an encyclopaedia,” and yet it is structured like one, reads like one, has the eye-straining font size of one and weighs like one – about 2 kilograms.
The Anatomy of Fashion is divided into four parts. Section one, “The Body Unclothed,” consists of three sub-divided chapters that consider the colour, cut and texture of clothes, from classical times to contemporary. Section two, “The Body Anatomized,” analyses the cultural and sociological significance of human body parts, including the head, shoulders, knees and toes, which contain roughly half of all the bones in the adult skeleton. Section three, “The Body Clothed,” examines sartorial styles from the past and present in 43 page-long chapters that cover significant clothing trends and concepts—from Grunge and the New Romantics, to Capsule and Regal. The final section of the book provides a 5,000-year fashion chronology.
Comprehensive as it is, the book has no overarching thesis (although McDowell’s interest in the overlap between politics and dress, his suspicion of mass consumerism and his criticism of the fashion industry permeate his prose). At times his insights (or gripes) are plainly stated and explicit, like when he claims that modern designers “normally have a very short concentration span” and delight in “acres of news coverage,” but these statements are usually suppressed by the volume of anatomical facts (Did I mention the human foot contains 26 bones, 114 ligaments and 20 muscles, and supports “our weight throughout the 270 million steps of an average lifetime”?) and historical anecdotes (Did you know that the equestrian image of Charles I was in large part due to the fact that he had rickets? His legs were so weak that he wore boots to keep him upright.). Readers who are hoping to find the lively and lucid prose that characterises McDowell’s articles for The Business of Fashion will be disappointed; much like his Fashion Today, another encyclopaedic tome, The Anatomy of Fashion is not meant to be read through and will not reward any reader who attempts to do so.
The Anatomy of Fashion is really four books sandwiched together. Each section has a slightly different—although equally irritating—layout, which makes use of half-size pages, columns, small fonts, thumbnail-size images with captions and expository quotations placed at 180 degrees to the main text. The design was presumably conceived to give the chapters character, and to help McDowell and Phaidon convince readers of their bold claim that they are adopting a “new approach to chronicling how we dress.” Yet in practice, the differing chapter designs express the disparate nature of their content. McDowell has tried to write a book that conveys some of the more complex ideas about clothing and fashion whilst retaining a conventional chronological and narrative structure, but the result is unsatisfactory (even if it is acknowledged that McDowell has pitched this book at a general, rather than academic, audience).
Material is not infrequently repeated across the books’ four sections. This is especially true of the third part, “The Body Clothed,” in which McDowell considers the semiotics of style under 43 arbitrary sub headings: “Establishment” and “Heritage” could surely be combined, and the same could be said of “Glamour” and “Regal,” and “Capsule,” “Convenience” and “Workwear.” Moreover, these short sections, along with the longer thematic chapters in section one, do not identify any key themes or turning points in the development of human dress.
If The Anatomy of Fashion breaks human dress into its basic elements as the introduction claims, it is left for readers to piece them all together and decide for themselves what the past 5,000 years of style might mean. If only McDowell had not been so quick to play down the encyclopaedic qualities of the book, which is surely its mainly selling point as it brings together content and concepts rarely found beneath a single cover, readers might have been more satisfied with the enlightening facts it provides (Did you know that Cinderella’s slipper was originally fashioned from fur so as to refer to the female genitalia, and only became known as a glass slipper due to a translation error?) and less cognisant of its lack of analysis and interpretation. However The Anatomy of Fashion was conceived, c’est une pipe—though not literally, of course.