Stitched-Up Stories: True Tales That Change The Way We See Clothes
Clothes, jewelry, shoes—they’re all just meaningless baubles, right? If you’re already hearing Miranda Priestley’s “blue” speech from “The Devil Wears Prada,” let the following books be your cerulean.
I love fashion, but my taste in jewelry runs toward the cheap, mostly because I have never met an earring I couldn’t lose. But halfway through Francesca Cartier Brickell’s “The Cartiers: The Untold Story of the Family Behind the Jewelry Empire,” I was scrolling eBay to see if I could find cheap Cartier (spoiler: You can’t). All of these books are more than that title would lead you to believe.
In the case of “The Cartiers,” it’s a company history, world history, retail history, an exploration of colonization and royal families and the role of women in all of these. Brickell is a descendant of the founders of Cartier, so she had unmatched access to family records, photographs and her grandfather Jacques, the last Cartier to actually have a stake in the firm before it was sold to a conglomerate.
Photographs of jewels, bills of sale and famous customers are sprinkled throughout, including famous Baltimorean Wallis Simpson. What a perfect follow-up to read after visiting the Maryland Historical Society’s “Spectrum of Fashion” exhibit, which has some of Simpson’s clothes (and runs through October).
“The Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History” by Kassia St. Clair takes clothing down to its barest essence—the fibers and fabric that form it. Arranged chronologically, it begins with mummies who were wrapped in linen, much of which was lost to historical research as early archaeologists were more interested in the jewels in a tomb than the boring old cloth strips.
We move through Viking times to lace makers, all the way to space travel and high-tech sportswear. As “Buy No New Clothes for a Year” movements gain momentum, this book could give you all the reason you need for trying that challenge yourself, as you realize that all fiber and fabric come with an extreme environmental cost.
Set aside time to read any of these books. Not because they’re long or tedious, but because they’re all so packed full of loose threads of information that you’ll want to make time to learn more and tie them up.
Flea market shopping is more my speed. “The Golden Flea: A Story of Obsession and Collecting” by Michael Rips details the denizens of the longstanding Chelsea Flea Market and their wares.
Like much of oddball New York, the Flea is gone now, closing in December 2019, the victim of skyrocketing rents in a valuable space. But over its last years, Rips visited the parking garage home, where dozens of vendors sold stuff that ranged from hidden treasures to mostly trash.
The characters he writes about are given nicknames, but curiosity and good research skills can identify some of them, such as “Cowboy” who was an old anarchist and ex-roommate of Valerie Solanas (who shot Andy Warhol). Rips is a wealthy tourist in the flea market, and his nascent hoarding tendencies uncover a mystery. How is flea market art appraised versus art in a museum or from a collector? You might not be surprised, but you’ll be delighted at the conclusion.