Though it evolves constantly, fashion would grow stagnant without personal flourishes like a favorite pair of lived-in jeans. “The best things in life are free,” Chanel famously said. “The second best are very expensive.”
Fashion can be considered trivial or superficial, and in many ways this is true. But at its best, fashion can incite, even disturb, the imagination. Between the pages of W magazine, with its commitment to pushing boundaries and fostering the art of long-form photography, it thrives. Editor-in-Chief Stefano Tonchi collects 10 of the magazine’s finest productions from the past two decades in W: Stories, allowing an unexpected peek behind these remarkable, avant-garde editorials with outtakes, inspiration boards and brief essays from photographers, designers and more. Steven Meisel’s first shoot with W raised questions of beauty and gender with aggressive, androgynous models sprawling up and down half-lit urban alleys. Actress Tilda Swinton recalls her and photographer Tim Walker’s pilgrimage to Iceland, where they shot alien, forbidding images that at times look like stills from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Photographer Alex Prager describes assembling a lovely and gloomy cast of characters to portray a Hitchcockian day at the races. This is fashion at its most provocative, a necessary book for minds that require a little disturbance.
From fantasy we move to reality, and no book better captures the relationship between real women and their clothing than Women in Clothes. The truly stylish—or even those who have given the slightest thought to their style—aren’t taking their every cue from glossy magazine spreads, so editors Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton set out to discover just what women think about when they put themselves together. The result is a truly all-encompassing (but never overwhelming), contemporary “philosophy of style,” a collection of interviews and surveys of more than 600 artists, writers and other women. It’s like a massive conference call with all your friends and everyone else’s friends, too. As Heti writes, “The most compelling women are the ones who are distinctive, who are most like themselves and least like other women.” It’s nice to feel that your idiosyncracies and influences can be considered as important as good tailoring, and you may find yourself polling your friends, looking at other women differently or at least feeling a little better about owning 10 gray sweatshirts.
Or perhaps you have 12 pairs of red shoes or too many wrap dresses—no judgment either way. That being said, you’re likely to have one pair of red flats you love more than any other. Based on Emily Spivack’s blog of the same name, Worn Stories eschews the beautiful side of fashion for the pricelessness and singularity of that one favorite thing. More than 60 cultural figures and celebs, many of whom reside in New York, reveal their personal connections to just one item of clothing, from fashion designer and self-declared “total dork” Cynthia Rowley’s Girl Scout sash to John Hodgman’s Ayn Rand dress. One piece of clothing can tell quite a story, and this book is delightful proof of that.
PEARLS AND FLATS
Time and time again we return to Coco Chanel (1883-1971), the patron saint of classic, feminine style and a cultural force unlike any before or since. Though we recreate her image with our cardigans and taupe flats, biographers who have attempted to capture Chanel are more often than not thwarted by their own subject. Chanel notoriously tried to block anyone from writing her story and repeatedly obfuscated fact with fiction. According to Rhonda K. Garelick, author of Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History, the gaps in Chanel’s story are as essential to her persona as her stylistic revolution. So rather than “pinning down a ghost,” this new bio explores Chanel’s story (as we know it) in relationship to the vast theater of European history. Garelick—who was granted unrestricted access to the Chanel Archives in Paris and to the diaries of Chanel’s lover, Grand Duke Dmitri Romanov—has produced an epic, well-researched balance of historical resonance and breathless admiration.
Fashion on its grandest scale lies within the pages of Vogue and the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute. The Met’s Costume Institute (reopened this year as the Anna Wintour Costume Center) houses more than 35,000 costumes and accessories from the 15th century on, and has been funded since 1948 by the yearly Costume Institute Benefit, an evening of pretty people dressed in pretty things. This book looks back on the exhibitions and galas of the 21st century, beginning with 2001’s “Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years” and ending with the architectural feats of high-glamour ball gowns in 2014’s “Charles James: Beyond Fashion.” Featuring Vogue editorials and essays by Hamish Bowles, this is where art, fashion and history collide, where creativity meets—and manipulates—our culture. It might be frivolous, but it’s far from trivial.