A history of clothes makes room for silliness

December 18, 1991|By Valli Herman | Valli Herman,Los Angeles Daily News

Even the silliest of today's fashions don't look so odd when they are compared with their historical predecessors.

But few comprehensive fashion history books dare to poke fun at centuries of clothing vanity. Lynn Schnurnberger does. The author of "Let There Be Clothes: 40,000 Years of Fashion," (Workman; $19.95), applies wit and an eye for the outrageous to the text and abundant illustrations in her 415-page book.

Schnurnberger, a former special consultant in costume to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, took nine years to compile the book, she said during a recent Los Angeles visit.

The author often arranged sections to contrast ideals of beauty and how they changed through the ages.

"Who is to say that varicose veins are ugly?" she said, noting that in 3000 B.C. women outlined varicose veins on the legs or breasts with blue dye.

"I grew up with Twiggy as my role model, and the heaviest thing about her was her eyelashes," Schnurnberger said, demonstrating the kind of wit that pervades the book.

By including a time line on each page noting important historical dates, the book draws parallels between fashion and society. Little asides often included in the margins give the book its richness.

For example, under the heading Loose Hips Build Ships "1917: America enters World War I and women gratefully donate their steel corsets to the effort. The resulting 28,000 tons of steel are enough to build two battleships."

Schnurnberger believes many fashions are destined to return, at least in some form.

"In the renaissance, people slashed their clothes to show they were so rich they could wear two layers of clothes," she said. The practice continues today in the slashed and shredded blue jeans popular among teen-agers and rock stars.

The book is more of a fun read than a reference book. It doesn't have an index.

"It's really for anybody who gets dressed," she said. "It's not just for (Fashion Institute of Technology) students," she said, referring to the famous New York design school.

"Let There Be Clothes" helps to answer those questions that have, or maybe have not, plagued deep thinkers for centuries. Consider:

"Adam made the first ready-to-wear decision. Why did Adam pick the fig leaf? There were all kinds of other leaves, like apple."

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