How To Read a Dress by Lydia Edwards

How To Read A Dress

A couple of weeks ago a friend got in contact with me as the company she works for, Bloomsbury Publishing, had released a wonderful new book that she thought I might be interested in. And you know what, she wasn’t wrong!

How to Read a Dress by Lydia Edwards is a fascinating book exploring how to recognise what date or era a dress or ensemble is from. It covers a vast range of centuries, from 1550 right up to the 1970s, so it’s a fairly weighty book. It, of course, doesn’t cover every single style change but rather picks out outfits that were very much of their time and focuses on explaining the key points of each piece.

Robe a l'anglaise

For instance, the Robe à l’Anglaise was the height of fashion in England for most of the 18th Century (the French had their equivalent – Robe à la Française). This example from the Metropolitan Museum in New York is thought to have originally been a Robe à la Française and later converted to a Robe à l’Anglaise, which is explained in the details.

It also includes a small image of a Gainsborough painting which shows off the bodice shape more clearly. This book has helpful additional detail like this, showing similar styles in paintings in the earlier centuries and photographs in the later ones.

1860s dress detail

I love how it goes into great detail about the different trimmings and design elements. You know exactly the trim that was used on this beautiful silk taffeta promenade dress from 1870 and how it was styled. You also learn that because this dress has no train, unlike many other dresses from this period, it means that it has been designed for going on walks or ‘promenading’. This was active wear of its time, a little different from the skintight lycra of today!

1912 women's suit

As someone who studied fashion history during my time at fashion college I, of course, find the older centuries fascinating, but as a vintage fiend it’s the early 20th Century that holds my attention the most. This beautiful Tussah silk shantung (silk with a linen look) suit from 1912 caught my eye immediately. It’s so strikingly simple compared to all of the previous examples yet there’s still so much going on with it.

My favourite piece of information given is about the amount of buttons used. Apparently the American women’s magazine The Delineator said in 1911 that “one can not use buttons too liberally in the present mode”. A rule I tend to live by in all my own sewing projects!

1928 evening gown

And I love that one of the very few double spreads is dedicated to an incredible dress from my era. This Lucien Lelong dress from 1928 was an indicator of the styles that followed on from the wide column dresses of the earlier 1920s.

The natural waist is more defined than before but is given the effect of having a drop waist with the wide plain band across the hips. The band becomes a bow at the back with falls down as long streamers that drape on the floor. This shows the beginning of the skirt lengthening in evening gowns, which just a year or two later influences everyday dress.

1960s Courrèges ensemble

The Sixties was my first big love with vintage and the Mod look shown here in an ensemble by André Courrèges (1965) will always the style of fashion I love about this decade. It was heavily influenced by the world around it at the time and you can immediately see the space age theme coming through.

Man-made fabrics such as PVC and polyester were considered futuristic, as were the colours of white and silver. Block colours and clean lines emphasised this further and it was imagined that we’d all be wearing this sort of look in our future homes on other planets.

How to Read a Dress glossary

One part of How to Read a Dress that’s really handy is the Glossary of Terms at the end. It lists many different names of garments, details and fashion movements from across the centuries. Most of the 20th Century ones I already knew but I’d never heard of a Fontange. And in case you were wondering it’s the decorative part of a tall headdress composed of lace and gauze that was seen in the 17th Century. So now you know!

I’m thoroughly enjoying this book and because of the way it’s set out there’s no need to sit and read it from start to finish. You can dip into it every now and again and pick an era or a particular outfit to read about. I’ve learnt quite a bit about the pre-20th Century years already and even the odd bit I didn’t know about the later years.

I just want to say a big thank you to Bloomsbury Publishing for sending it to me, I think it will come in handy whilst watching all those period dramas I love so much. I can check just how accurate the costume designers have been and I promise not to criticise too much! 🙂


Just a vintage gal suffering from the Golden Age syndrome. A lover of all things old, especially the 1930s, seamstress, crocheter, maker of hats and enjoys rummaging at flea markets.


  1. Ohhh What a fantastic book that I must add to my collection. I don’t think we can ever have enough resources on how to properly understand how clothing was made and this looks like a good one. Thanks for the review!

    • Oh, I totally agree. I have loads of fashion history books and I’m always on the lookout for more. I’m sure you’ll enjoy this one, it’s a great read xx

    • Oh absolutely! And you can pick up so many interesting facts too xx

  2. What a great book, Cate. I’ll certainly be looking out for it to add to my collection. xxx

    • Excellent! It’s a great book, definitely worth having a good read of it. xx

  3. This looks like a fascinating book. I like ones like this that you can dip into and learn a little something new. How lovely to be sent it.

    • I think you’d really enjoy this Kate-Em. I’d highly recommend keeping an eye out for it. xx

    • It really is a great book and I was surprised at how much I’ve already learnt from it xx

  4. What a great resource! I am not good at dating garments at all! In fact I down right suck! I just don’t know what I’m looking for. When I look at a garment I’m just thinking how much I love it and nerding over sewing details and techniques. Maybe this is a good book for me to learn a little something about dating garments!

    • Oh, you would love this book then! The biggest part of reading old clothes is about the sewing details and techniques, so you’re half way there. It’s just remembering when those sewing details and techniques were popular! xx

  5. That book looks fabulous! I’m going to have to keep my eye out for a copy. 😀 I love learning about fashion history so this book is right up my alley! Thank you so much for writing this review and sharing this book with us!

    • You’re welcome! Do try and get a copy of it, it’s a really handy book to have around and just pick up when you’ve got five minutes. xx

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