Fashion is Spinach: How to Beat the Fashion Racket by Elizabeth Hawes is an entertaining and interesting look at the couture and ready-to-wear fashion industry first published in 1938. While it offers a great glimpse into everyday life and the fashion industry of the 20’s and 30’s, much of what Hawes has to say about fashion and the fashion industry seems to still hold true today. (Don’t let the cheesy cover of the re-issue distract you, the inside is a gem!)
Hawes is an outspoken, opinionated woman with a delightfully blunt manner of supporting her views, which certainly makes for a spunky and entertaining read. For example:
It is almost impossible for me to get into print what I feel when I look at a dress which is obviously made of a material that you could shoot peas through, that has no shape of any kind, but just a belt around the waist so the customer can pretend it fits there, the whole topped by some disgusting trimming which has been added without reference to the line of the dress, which doesn’t exist in any case. My soul curdles. My stomach turns over eight times per second. My spine tightens and I vomit mentally.
The main thesis of the book is that fashion is a detestable institution (I never quite figured out why Hawes calls fashion “spinach.” I happen to really like spinach, but maybe she’s not a fan of leafy greens, because she certainly didn’t like fashion!). While a major proponent of developing personal style, fashion – meaning the production of cheap ready-to-wear clothes and the marketing cycle that tells us women we need to change what we are wearing every season – does a disservice to all involved.
Lavin and Chanel, Hawes and Valentina, are fundamentally occupied with selling style. The manufacturer and the department store are primarily occupied with selling fashion. I don’t know when the word fashion came into being, but it was an evil day…Style is that thing which, being looked back upon after a century, gives you the fundamental feeling of a certain period in history…Fashion persuades millions of women that comfort and good lines are not all they should ask in clothes. Fashion swings the female population this way and that through the magic expression that “they” are wearing such an such this season and you must do likewise or be ostracized.
The first half of the book reads as a delightful coming-of-age story of a young woman who happens to work in the fashion industry. Hawes tells her own story of moving to Paris and getting an inside look at the couture industry. It’s an interesting glimpse into the world of couture and quite entertaining to follow her triumphs and travails as she negotiates her way from job to job, from living hand-to-mouth with just a young woman’s dream and drive, to finding moderate success. At the end of her time in Paris, she returns to the United States and starts one of the first American design houses. “I had simply concluded that, if the French could make clothes eminently suited to chic Europeans, there was every reason to suppose that beautiful clothes could and should be designed int he United States for whatever kind of woman lived there.”
The second half of the book is about Hawes’s design house and her experiences with running a made-to-order house as well as the work she did for the ready-to-wear industry. Although it drags a bit by the end, there are some real gems in the second half as well, and much critique that could very well be written now. Much of what she says about the ready-to-wear industry we, as sewists, have identified as things that turn us off from buying RTW…
What would the [lady who buys] inexpensive ready-made…not give to be able to settle into a quiet corner with an understanding salesperson and choose for herself just what she really wants and needs? But her fate is the nerve-racing business of squeezing herself into a five by eight fitting room to try on a lot of things she doesn’t like anyway, and she knows on walking into a department store, that she can’t get navy blue in the fall, which is engough to unsettle the most stable stomach.
…and are eminently satisfying about making our own clothes.
There are a great number of American women who don’t know whether their clothes fit them or not even when the dress is made to order.
There are no size 14 women in the world, nor are there any size 16. There is no wholesale dress which fits any woman who buys it. No two women in the world have the same proportions, width of shoulder, length of arm, height of waist. The great majority of women in the United States, never having had their clothes made to fit them, have not the faintest idea what it is to be really comfortable in clothes.
I recommend Fashion is Spinach: How to Beat the Fashion Racket if you have an interest in the history of fashion or couture, if you like reading memoirs, if you enjoy opinionated women, or if you have ben following with interest the current backlash against RTW manufacturing (or like me – all of the above!).
Looking for more reviews of recommended books on the history of fashion? Might I suggest Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life.
Fashion is Spinach was sent to me by an editor at Dover. I agreed to review the book only if I liked it and thought that y’all would like it as well. I did like it and would recommend it, so I wrote this review.