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The bold & the beautiful.

We all have an unhealthy love affair with fashion. Sometimes it's destructive, negative and dangerous, and as with all grand passions it changes us, alters our perceptions and leaves a mark on our psyches.

Whether it's the logo on your Y-fronts, the label in your suit or the agonising footwear you suffer in its cause, fashion is as much a part of our lives as what we eat and the car we drive.

We simply adore it. Millions flock to see an ersatz view of the industry at the Clothes Show Live event at the NEC each year; the burgeoning ticket and car park prices, freezing December chills and the sheer slog of traipsing the endless municipal halls of fabric, hype and shampoo does not diminish its lustre. With near religious fervour we yearn to touch the hem of the cloak of glamour.

The supermodels, the photographers, the celebrity shoppers and the main attraction, the designers themselves, present a kaleidoscopic carnival of players leaving us breathless in the pursuit of the ethereal.

Trying to make sense of fashion is like trying to hold the aroma of a memory in your hand. But, of course, there is meaning there and if you choose to see fashion as a trivial parade of randomly altering images, then you simply have not lived.

Now there is a book that presents a provocative and deeply enlightening survey of the fashion world from Dior's New Look in 1947 to the present day.

Fashion Today beautifully and succinctly examines the ever-changing spirit of fashion in order to illuminate the links and correspondences between clothes and other major areas of culture: commercial, social and artistic.

It is written by Colin McDowell, the acerbic and highly regarded fashion critic for The Sunday Times, whose searing honesty and bibliographic knowledge of fashion can make or break a fashion designer's fragile ego.

Alexander McQueen has currently put a ban on him attending the shows but the exquisitely attired, white bearded (immaculately trimmed, of course) gentleman before me is a picture of grace and quiet composure.

A man who describes himself as a 'feminist and socialist' McDowell takes an intellectual approach to his subject as a fashion historian, designer, Professor at the London Institute and Chairman of the Costume Society.

'I shall rather miss seeing his shows,' he sighs mildly. For this is a man who studies the lives, styles, personas, egos, histories and historics of the world's greatest designers as an aficionado.

'I wanted to put meaning into fashion,' he says of his reason for writing this lavishly illustrated and magnificently illuminating tome.

'The vacuity of fashion drives me mad. It should be up there with painting, sculpture and architecture as one of the arts and a hundred years from now it will be and it will be discussed with equal respect and from an intellectual perspective,' he predicts.

The book, he says, is not a directory of the 20th century, as he had written such a work some 18 years ago.

Instead, Fashion Today chronicles the epoch making changes in the world of fashion from the rise of youth culture, which finally shook the stranglehold that Parisienne couture had on the world of high style and the slow but empirical rise of the celebrity designer, fashion magazine, supermodel and star photographers who are the common currency in our vocabulary today.

'Having a perspective on anything cultural is meaningless unless you understand the history supporting it. The sexual, economical, political climate, the east/west differences; when you know and comprehend the history you know how to read the clothes,' explains the author.

The book is a coffee table crusher of a tome. It elegantly combines memorable images of fashion icons, the style makers, the brave, the beautiful and the merely chic whose courage has created fashion as it stands today.

The pictures are a joy and ably supported by the riveting and incisive text by Mr Dowell, which clearly crystallises the important cultural moments, which formed fashion as we know it today.

I have to confess to having learned many new facets about an industry I thought I knew inside out, and am now committed to reading it from cover to cover.

'Most books are horizontal,' says the author, quixotically. 'You read from one side to the other. But mine is vertical. Take a theme and read it.' Colin McDowell, who has written several books about fashion and style, is currently working on a book on the life of Ralph Lauren, a man, he says, 'who has changed our perception of ourselves'.

A man amongst harpies bizarre at the front rows of the world's fashion runways, Colin McDowell bemoans the scarcity of female designers, which he puts down, in some part, to women's ability to focus on many things, and not to obsess about one.

'Women designers have brought a new dimension to fashion. They start from the assumption of practicality and they are concerned about details. They are more realistic and don't go off on flights of pure fantasy as the men,' he explains.

'But one thing unites them all. Fashion is about passion; it's about having a fire in your belly. It's wanting to create above all else.

'I used to teach John Galliano and I thought he'd either go to the top or go mad. There is no in between with genius like that. No matter how poor he was, he'd never work selling fish.'

And the future? 'Men are the new sex objects now. Versace started it with his works which exulted in male beauty and this will be a feminist and social change which will be very interesting to watch.'

If you want to know why the white T-shirt (and the diminutive James Dean) has done more for men's fitness than Schwarzenegger ever did or simply why you are wearing that deconstructed puff-ball/hobble skirt/shirt dress then look to Fashion Today.

It's not just about what you wear, but who you are and where you are, and if you think that's trivial then be very scared. This book will get your heart leaping.

Colin McDowell will be talking about and signing copies of his new book Fashion Today (Phaidon Press (pounds 39.95) on Thursday November 2 at 6.30pm at Waterstones, High Street, Birmingham. Tickets cost pounds 2 and are redeemable against the price of the book on the evening of talk. Call Watermans on 0121 633 4353.
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Author:Rice, Fashion Carole Ann
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Oct 27, 2000
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