Sometimes, with the huge volumes of superlatives and glossy pictures surrounding the world of fashion, you just want someone to tell it as it as. That's the joy of Ernestine Carter's Magic Names of Fashion. Published in 1980, Carter's authoritative and intelligent writing make it a joy to read 32 years later.
Carter started her career in MoMA in the late 1920s, before moving to London with her British husband. She became fashion editor for Harper's Bazaar in 1946 and went on to write for the Observer. By 1968 she was associate editor for The Sunday Times and was responsible for establishing the position of fashion within the paper, as well as supporting Britain's emerging designers in the 60s. Magic Names of Fashion utilizes her extensive fashion knowledge, comprising neat extended profiles of important fashion designers, editors and publishers, starting with Beau Brummell and running through to Yves Saint Laurent. It's a great primer into each of the names, welding descriptions of their personality with their creations.
The book is unillustrated, except for witty illustrations by Maureen Bourke at the start of each profile, such as the Schiaparelli example above. This means you're left with Carter's descriptive power to pinpoint the magic quality of each designer. Thankfully, this is something she seems to hone in on with a killer instinct: Chanel is "an extraordinary woman who raised egocentricity to an art", while Pucci's "special achievement was to change the look of women under the sun". Her profiles extend to the fashion media too. There's a fascinating section on Edna Woolman Chase editorship at Vogue and Carmel Snow's at Harper's Bazaar and what they each did to change the face of each magazine.
But what makes these names magic? In the introduction she argues that "such personalities much be so positive, so individual, so incorrigibly original that their imprint is immediately recognisable and indelibly stamped not only on clothing but on the taste and style of living of their time." It's this logic which leads to the inclusion - alongside names of masters like Dior, Balenciaga and Worth - of Laura Ashley. Laura Ashley, who to contemporary eyes, seems to rely on a very conservative, almost regressive look, begins to sound fresh again through the words of Carter, if not also timely for 2012: "Women were beginning to be sick of the decadent pastiches of the Thirties, the Art Deco tat, the second-hand clothes look. They were ready for the clean country look of a more innocent past. Laura Ashley was the answer."
Her analysis of then-contemporary fashion is also spot on. 'Star Spangled Fashion' puts Calvin Klein - though by then a millionaire still not at the height of his late 80s/90s fame - alongside the Bonnie Cashin and Claire McCardell as proponents of "America's unique contribution to fashion": "careless ease."
Though the book end with a note about the "confused state of the world and fashion", you finish the book feeling anything but confusion. It's written with such clarity and authority it makes you wish there was a similar survey available to so deftly guide you through the different fashion names clamouring for attention today.