Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Costume History (Le Costume Historique) by Racinet

Sometimes it is difficult to imagine what people were like in the past, not only on outlook & beliefs, but on more basic aspects as well. What they wore is one of these.  Back in the XIX century Racinet among others made a study of the history of costume  and Le costume Historique is the result.

There are at least three different editions of this work by Taschen: the humongous 2003 deluxe tome, the 2009 white cover edition and the 2012 two volume edition. I got the 2009. Though still somewhat large in size it is now quite manageable compared with the 2003.

The collection itself consists on hundreds of dressed figures covering from antiquity (Egypt, Babylon, Greece, Rome) to the nineteenth century across cultures and social strata. Understandably, the largest portion of the book is destined to Europe and France in particular. A significant portion is devoted to arms and military outfit. There are also illustrations of various settings, such as the villa, the castle, the court. The illustrations are fair-sized, very detailed and cleanly reproduced.

The biggest caveat though, which I believe  is not  particular to this edition only, is the poor illustration reference key. It appears that Racinet wrote extensive commentaries on all or most of the figures. This info is not to be found here. The editors thought the commentary  too long and instead of that we get the illustrations all right but with laconic explanations. Couldn't they have offered a bit more, at least the headings for each figure? I feel cheated by this, but then again I'm the one to blame for not checking. One can get by by logic and educated guesswork  on some cases, but this is not always so. Oh, also the font is too small which can be a great hindrance for some readers. The cover also offers cause for complaint as can be soiled quite easily.

By itself, if you can look past the cons, it is a recommended book, particularly if you like fashion, ethnography, history or work on cinema or theater. Bear in mind that it is mostly eye-candy as it is.

There must be a good alternative out there. A first try is What People Wore When by Melissa Leventon. This repackages many of Racinet original images mixing in some by Hottenroth into a timeline. Though cheaper than Racinet it only uses a third of all available images (my estimate). On better footing is Histoire du Costume (20,000 Years of Fashion: The History of Costume and Personal Adornment) by Fran├žois Boucher which might be it. On the plus side it has way more text, extends into the twentieth century and includes photos. However, it is comparatively shorter on actual images. On the same vein is A History of Costume by Kohler which is more analytically inclined. These last two are more scholarly and in a sense oppose the current image oriented Racinets. If English costume is your thing go for Historic Costuming by Truman (b&w). Finally, if you anyway love eye-candy, get Fashion (2 vols) by the Kyoto Costume Institute. This has close-up photos of museum pieces and the fabrics look oh, so beautiful.


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