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Monday, April 12, 2010

The Story of Clothes and Costume. A Ladybird ‘Achievements’ Book.

One of the things I like about being an author is that people sometimes ask you to contribute to those ‘your-answer-here’ magazine columns. I love them and always fill them in mentally as I read other people’s What I Eat for Breakfast, Me and My Favourite Garden Implement etc.

I have been asked several times for my five all-time favourite books (impossible, so you just have to plunge in) and more interestingly, for the ones which have changed, or formed my life. In the latter, I had no hesitation in including this book.

Like most middle-class, middle-aged Brits, I have an almost unhealthy fetish for Ladybird books and have been collecting them for years from charity shops and car boot fairs. (Most of them are in my daughter’s room, but they’re really for me.)

The appeal lies in the glorious ideal-real illustrations and the sense of comforting wellbeing the books give off. You won’t find any unpleasantness in a Ladybird book.

But while I can enjoy casually flicking through The Ladybird Book of Pets and Out In The Sun (two titles randomly picked from my daughter’s shelf), in the same spirit with which I’ve embraced the recent advent of Ladybird merchandise, The Story of Clothes and Costume had a far deeper impact on me.

I must have been about eight when I got it and was instantly gripped by reading about the way in which clothes have changed over the centuries and poring over the satisfyingly clear and detailed illustrations.

Very quickly I was fully across the progression from mid-Victorian crinolines (‘The Early Days of the Railway’) to the late-Victorian bustle and over time I brought every picture in the book to life, by dressing up in my own versions of each outfit, which I think helped to imprint those details on my mind forever.

We had a big dressing up cupboard in the playroom on the top floor of the house and I amused myself there for hours, rigging up Regency bonnets (tie a chiffon scarf round an old straw hat…), Medieval wimples (a wire coat hanger and an old net curtain) and so on.

Beyond dressing up as glamorous ladies in long dresses – I particularly adored the family of Cavaliers (and loathed the ghastly Puritans on the next page) – I think what grabbed my young interest was the way that the text put the changes in clothes into a socio-historical context.

I had no that’s what it was, of course, but the idea that the precise times you live in entirely determine changes in what everyone wears made perfect sense to me.

And when – fifteen years later – I went to my first designer fashion show (Katharine Hamnett…) it seemed obvious to view those new clothes in exactly the same terms.

So without this book, I don’t think I ever would have written about fashion. Thank you, Ladybird.


  1. Hi Maggie,

    I can't figure out how to send you a message on Twitter or Blogspot (I'm new and, well, not the best in the computer department) so I decided to leave a comment on your post. Hope you don't mind.
    I just wanted to tell you that you are one of my role models and I would love to achieve the same lifestyle and down to earthness you have. Oh, and I should probably mention that I'm not some 80 year old stalker, I'm just a 14 year old girl :)
    Anyway, if you have any tips for me that would be amazing!

    Love, Grace

  2. I collect them too (for my son). Do you shelf them by their spine colours?

  3. Hi Maggie,

    I am SO GLAD you posted this. This was one of my favourite books as a child too, but I haven't thought of it in years. For some reason—I am no fashionista—I LOVED books about historical clothing. I always loved history, and English history especially, and I think the clothes really brought it to life for me.

    The illustrations in this Ladybird book are gorgeous—I wonder who did them? I believe my sister still has our copy, but now I going to have to track down a copy myself.

    I think we had the same childhood!



  4. Completely with you on costume history. Mother gave me many books on subject, including complicated pattern books from which we would make costumes very occasionally.