I am not a fashionable person. My daily uniform of choice is a nerdy t-shirt and jeans, or sweatpants for that frazzled-freelancer-at-home look. So when I received a review copy of Bad Girls of Fashion: Style Rebels from Cleopatra to Lady Gaga by Jennifer Croll and Ada Buchholc from Annick Press, I thought I wouldn’t relate to it.
Wow, was I wrong.
Croll digs deep for fascinating details about history’s women, from the significance of Cleopatra’s jewelry to deciphering the message in Madonna’s fashion during each step of her career. The author shows how the only power women often had through history was over what they wore, and they used that power to gain freedom, influence politics, or change culture. Sometimes it’s also about powerful women controlling their own image, like Britain’s Elizabeth I only allowing herself to be portrayed as young and therefore vibrant and strong as a ruler. Other times, it’s about freeing other women from tortuous social norms, like China’s Dowager Empress Cixi banning foot-binding in the 19th century.
The book also illustrates the different forms of fashion as activism through the ages, both passive and active. Angela Davis touts her natural Afro, while Josephine Baker sheds her clothes and her country, both for civil rights. Marlene Dietrich and George Sand blur the gender line and create their own identities, and Lady Gaga draws attention for her favorite causes with shocking wardrobe choices that include a dress made from flank steak.
There are ten sections covering 30 women, all colorfully illustrated by Buchholc. This book is meant for pre-teen to teen readers, but it does mention gender and sexual preference. There’s no lewdness in the text, but Croll is honest with her audience in talking about Coco Chanel’s affairs, how Marilyn Monroe claimed her own sexual power through her image, or the influence of lesbian fashion.
Body positivity is represented in the book by singer Beth Ditto, and if Croll does a follow-up book I’d love to see more women represented, like Melissa McCarthy and her new clothing line or yoga guru Jessamyn Stanley.
Although the book is meant for a young audience, anyone interested in clothes, history, or girl power should pick up a copy. I learned new things about Frida Kahlo, Marie Antoinette, and Wallis Simpson, and I discovered Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo, who took the beauty out of fashion and deconstructed it into something new. Croll got me out of my comfort zone and into a new viewpoint. It’s a perfect fit.
Bad Girls of Fashion: Style Rebels from Cleopatra to Lady Gaga will be available on October 11.