Sunday, 11 November 2018

Patterns of Fashion 5 - a short review

I'll confess, it's so long since I pre-ordered this that I'd forgotten about it! Which was good in a way, because it meant that when the postman arrived on Thursday with a packet I was completely mystified - and then thrilled when I opened it.


For readers who aren't into historical costuming, let me explain. Janet Arnold was a costume historian who wrote a number of books, probably the best known being the first two volumes of Patterns of Fashion. These books look at a number of women's costumes, usually dresses, held in English collections (I use the word 'English' rather than 'British' deliberately) during the period 1660-1940. For each costume there are line drawings of front and back views, and often a drawing of the interior, showing construction details. There is also a detailed diagram of all the pieces, drawn to scale on a grid, enabling the dress to be recreated. The Costume Society runs an annual competition for the best recreation: you can see the most recent winners here.

This very basic explanation really doesn't do Arnold's scholarship justice. My copies of Patterns of Fashion 1 and 2 are over 30 years old, and I've spent many happy hours dooling over them.

Janet Arnold died in 1998, leaving a large amount of unpublished research. Volume four, which like volume three covers the period c1540-1660, was published in 2008, with contributions from other authors. Volume five is published by The School of Historial Dress (details here), and moves away from clothing, and instead looks at bodies, stays, hoops and rumps from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Like volume four, the book makes lavish use of colour. (The first three volumes, reflecting the period when they were first written, are in black and white.) As well as period illustrations of different styles of dress, there are colour photographs of individual garments. There are detailed explanations of terminology, and of the materials used historically, along with suggestions for modern equivalents. X-ray photographs are also used to show the position of stiffening materials within the bodies and stays.

Terminology of stays

Traditional stiffening materials

Colour is also used in the scale diagrams, which makes details such as the different layers involved in construction of stays easier to understand.

Part of one of the diagram pages

Amid all this (welcome) colour, there is still room for Arnold's illustrations. Seeing new drawings in the familiar style is like receiving a postcard from an old friend.

Court stays and petticoat, c1660-70

At 160 pages, there is a wealth of information packed in here. I will leave people who know more about the period to comment on how useful the book is from a practical point of view, but it is certainly a welcome addition to my costuming library. Thanks to American Duchess for alerting me to the fact that it was coming out.


  1. I love these books! My old ones date back 40 years - and originally cost £4.99 which I thought was a fortune at the time. Your postcard simile is lovely, as if from an old friend. Are you a member of the Costume Society? I'm tempted. My main interest is utility clothing though, which of course has not usually survived., and therefore hasn't had a great deal of Janet Arnold scrutiny.

  2. Thank you Kate, lovely to hear from you. I've just checked, and my copies were £9.95. I do remember that when I bunked off during a field trip to buy Nancy Bradfield's 'Historical Costumes of England' (I had my priorities even then), £8.50 was eye-wateringly expensive for my student budget, but worth it. I'm not a member of the Costume Society, but as membership runs Jan-Dec I'm tempted to join next year.

  3. Hola Tulipán Negro: Muy interesante tus comentarios sobre esta colección de Janet Arnold, que sigo y poseo solo un volúmen. Me interesa el vestuario histórico y vintage.
    Tu blog es un encanto, muchas gracias.

    1. Thank you Greta, I'm glad you found it helpful.