I am a library addict, a bookstore junkie, and a thrift store spy when it comes to finding vintage fashion history books. I grab whatever I can find used, order whatever is not cheap from the library (did you know you can order whatever book you want from any library in the world for free or very little cost. It is awesome!) and then buy whatever I have checked out from the library so many times my name is permanently engraved on it : )
Of all the books crowding my shelf, there are a few that I reference frequently. They are all about 20th-century fashions from 1900-1960 and usually give insight into what everyday people wore. They are the foundation of most of my research on fashion history.
These are my favorite vintage fashion history books broken down by general fashion, men’s fashion and then decade specific.
**This post contains affiliate links and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on my links.
Women’s Vintage Fashion History Books
Fashion: The Mirror of History by Michael Batterberry, Ariane Batterberry
I don’t usually like “all inclusive” books about fashion history because they lack enough detail about the clothing of the decades I am interested in most: 1860-1960. Mirror of Fashion is one of the better all-inclusive books. It is no longer in print which makes the used copies very affordable. I always find interesting tidbits of fashion history most other books leave out. There are many wonderful photographs and illustrations too. A feast for the eyes!
I love watching Tim Gunn on Project Runway. He has a way with words that is informative, encouraging to his students, and conveys tasteful fashion sense. All of this comes through in his new book. The Fashion Bible is a fun narrative of clothing, broken down by style (dresses, coats, shoes), with fashion history woven into the garment’s development. It is not your typical academic textbook that is dry to read. Tim Gunn’s voice shines through every sentence. It is a great book to have on your nightstand. Read a little each night and go to sleep with a smile on your face and some historical knowledge about the outfit you will wear tomorrow.
What we wore: An Offbeat Social History of Women’s Clothing, 1950-1980 by Ellen Melinkoff
This book is a recent purchase for me and I am so glad I found it. Written in the late 1980s, it is about everyday fashion worn from the 1950s to the 1980s. The author interviewed people gathering first-hand accounts of the clothing they remember wearing. The result is a well-written story about the clothing we wore, how we cared for them, our fashion influences, the culture of the times, and amusingly how they compare to fashions of today (meaning the 1980s.) I LOVE LOVE LOVE this book. It is my first reference to all the current articles on 1950s fashion and 1960s. My only complaint is that the author didn’t go back any earlier than the 1950s or include information on men’s fashion. Other than that I HIGHLY recommend everyone read this book.
Whenever I am getting ready for a 1920s-1960s event, I have these two books by my side. The retro hairstyles book is full of authentic and modern techniques to achieve perfect pin curls, fingers waves, and bee hives. The recommended products are helpful and the step by step photographed directions will make you a hairdressing expert. The book is broken down by decade with a few iconic styles for each. Most of the styles do take a long time to learn and master, as two hours wouldn’t even begin to be enough. The only one I have managed to put together quickly is the 1950s double French twist (which is perfect for my long, thick, curly hair). Most hairstyles are geared towards shorter shoulder-length hair). I still find the book incredibly helpful and one I want to spend more time learning from.
The Retro Makeup Book This is also very good. I love the history of all the makeup products and colors. There are numerous illustrations of the types of lips, eyebrows and eyeliner shapes, plus examples of full makeup done from the 1920s to the 1960s. My only complaint is like the hairstyles these looks are bit more Hollywood and not natural everyday styles. I still prefer to reference vintage books and magazines from the decade I want to recreate for my day to day looks, but when I run out of time to do that, the Retro Makeup book is my best friend. Both books are a must have for your collection.
Vintage Shoes by Caroline Cox
Recently I focused some research on vintage shoe styles. I found several books worth having such as The Seductive Shoe and Vintage Shoes. The latter is my first choice because it breaks down shoes by decade and includes quite a bit for information on each major new style. Seductive Shoe, on the other hand, explores one style of shoe across the entire century with beautiful photographs to match. Between these two books, I have learned a great deal about women’s vintage shoes.
Vintage Hats & Bonnets 1770-1970: Identification & Values by Susan Langley
This book for hat collectors is a must have for the pictures alone. There is a little history in the beginning of each chapter (each decade) but it’s mostly a picture book. All beautifully photographed pictures of vintage hats in so many different styles it is daunting to study! No wonder I don’t write too much about women’s hat history- it would have taken years to figure it all out. This books helps me get a visual sense of what hat design were all about. There is a second book of even more hats by the same author. Highly recommended if you are a hat lover.
Hats: A stylish History and Collectors Guide by Jody Shields
This is the kind of book I love to reference, especially since it captures millinery history from the 1920s to the 1960s. Each chapter focuses on developments in materials, shape and cultural influences during the decade. The pictures are a bit dated (written in 1991) but the information is a goldmine. Most other hat fashion books don’t cover the 20th century in the detail that this one does. I am glad to have it as a reference for women’s hats. Now if I can just find a similar one on men’s hats, I would be one happy historian.
Fabulous Fakes: A Passion for Vintage Costume Jewelry by Carole Tanenbaum
To be honest, jewelry is not one of my fashion interests. However, it is important to know how to accessorize my clothing for each decade. Most jewelry books focus heavily on designers or types of styles that span several decades. Finding a book about jewelry styles by a single decade is tricky. Fabulous Fakes was one of my favorites. It focuses on costume jewelry – jewelry for the mass market – and breaks it down by each general time period with a stronger focus on the mid-century styles. It has fabulous clear color pictures and a good amount of interesting history to keep my attention.
If you want a more detailed history and pictures of designer jewelry, then Answers to Questions About Old Jewelry, 1840-1950: Identification and Value Guide by
Men’s Vintage Fashion History Books
Men’s Fashion: The Complete Sourcebook by John Peacock
Any book about men’s fashion history is rare. This one is one the first I purchased after borrowing it so many times from the library. It doesn’t contain any written history about fashion, instead it is over 100 pages of color sketches of historical styles. This is very useful to get a quick idea of what an overall outfit might have looked for Victorian day wear, 1920s swimwear, or a 1960s Teddy Boy. It is a great place to find inspiration for a costume as well as a starting place to learn more elsewhere. Small descriptions of the clothing in each illustration identify the type of shoes, hat, cut of a coat, colors and materials each outfit is made of. All the styles are based on British men’s fashion history which doesn’t always apply to American style but again it is a great place to start considering there really are few good books on American men’s fashion. I use this book often for both my personal costuming needs as well as history materials on the blog.
Esquire’s Encyclopedia of 20th Century Men’s Fashions Hardcover by O.E. Schoeffler
Frustrated that I wasn’t able to find enough history on men’s fashion, I consulted another blog for other books I should own. Esquire Encyclopedia was on the top of the list and for good reason. Once I found a copy at my local University library I quickly saw that this phone book thick history book covered men’s fashion by decade from the 1900s to the 1970s then divided again by type of garments such as suits, shirts, socks, and cufflinks. The history is based on a men’s leading fashion magazine sold in the day like Men’s Wear and Vogue. That is a bit of a downside to it because the history is only about leading fashion trends of the wealthy, fashion-conscious classes. Working class men’s wear is not discussed. There are also not many pictures, but there is more than enough history to provide thousands of men’s fashion articles. It will cost you about $200-400 dollars used.
History of Men’s Fashion by Farid Chenoune
I wish I owned this book. I have checked it out from the library many times, but it is a collector’s item now and the $200 price tag is a bit too high for me. It is, however, an exceptional book about trends in men’s fashion from 1790 to 1990 in the USA, France, and Britain. It helped me understand what the 1940s Zoot Suit fashion trend really looked like, or about 1910s Jazz Age suits and 1960s mod fashion. The text is as much about the cultural context of these trends than it is about the fashion style. Highly recommended. If you happen to see a good price on this book, please let me know!
Hatless Jack by
The best book on men’s hat fashion I have read is Hatless Jack. It is a book so well written it will keep your eyes glued to every word until done. It is not a history book in chronological order about men’s hat styles. Instead, it is a book about the rise and eventual fall of men wearing hats. It captures the reason and trends of certain hat styles (Top Hat, Fedora, Bowler) and interjects bits of cultural history such as excerpts from newspapers, commentary by presidents, advertisements, etc. It is a VERY well rounded book about fashion through the eyes of our culture. Highly recommended. You can read my history of men’s 1920s hats here, where I pulled most of my information from Hatless Jack.
I wrote the Great Gatsby in Fashion – an annotation of the Great Gatsby book looking at all the reference to ’20s fashion. What was Gas Blue? Pottery Bracelets? A Tennis outfit? All these and more explained for only $2.99
Fashion History Books 1900-1920
Titanic Style: Dress and Fashion on the Voyage by Grace Evans
This is a new book in my collection that I have used many times in reference to Edwardian era clothing. The focus is to discuss fashion around the time of the Titanic’s sailing in 1912. The author covers all classes of people and all types of clothing from hats to corsets, hairstyles to hair pins. Each garment is set in the context of the people who wore them and more importantly why they wore them. The early 1900s was all about class structure and how fashion was determined by class. This type of culture meets fashion history is my favorite to study. It was a good start to my series of articles about Titanic era Fashions.
Great War Fashion- Added to my collection. Its a good overview of civilian fashion during WWI.
Fashion History Books 1920s
I put together this Amazon book list for all 1920s books I recommend.
Fashions of the Roaring ’20s by Ellie Laubner – If you need one book that covers all aspects of women’s 1920s fashion, this is the book for you. The focus is on primary historical events and the influence on fashion. While useful I found most of my information from a variety of other books. It is rather difficult to recommend just one.
This book isn’t about fashion alone, but is a collection of stories about the women of the 1920s who identified as flappers (various degrees of flapperness). Although there is a nice chapter dedicated to fashion, I found the entire book fascinating and helpful understanding the context of women’s lives during this time.
From Flappers to Flivvers…: We Helped Make the ’20s Roar! – This book compiles first hand stories of young men and women who lived through the 1920s. Most stories are from children sharing memories of their grandparents, parents and themselves. There is one section on fashion, otherwise the entire book covers day to day life such as school, vacations, church, cars, radio music and much more. Many old photographs to match the pictures. I love first hand accounts of history. There is a version for the 1940s and 1950s too.
Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s Frederick Lewis Allen – Written in 1931, this classic must-read book provides a look back on the 1920s. What happened, how people felt, how they dressed, and what led to the stock market crash. Another personal account of life in the 1920s that is invaluable. Since Yesterday 1929-1939 goes on to remember the 1930s. Also an excellent book but not as good as Only Yesterday.
The Modern Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s and The 1920s (American Popular Culture Through History) are two more books about life in the 1920s. They are not fashion books, but they were very helpful to my research about the culture in the 1920s.
Fashion History Books 1930s
Fashions of a Decade: The 1930s by Maria Costantino
I have yet to find a great book specifically about 1930s fashion still in print. Most fashion books lump the 1930s in with the 1920s or 1940s as if it was the all the same style. 1930s fashion deserves its own recognition. My hope is that with a few TV shows and movies coming out set in the 1930s, media will create more interest in 1930s fashion. In the meantime, this book is helpful to get an overview of fashion and culture in the thirties. Insights into how Hollywood, the Art Deco movement, and even dancing changed what was fashionable in the 30s makes this book unique.
Elegance in the Age of Crisis: Fashions in the 1930s by
A new book came out in 2014 to coincide with Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York exhibition of the same name. It is is a coffee table size book full of color photographs from the FIT collection. The pictures and text focus heavily on the beautiful clothing of the decade and the advancements of both material and construction. Spotlights are on major designers in Europe, Hollywood, and China. There is also a well-developed section on men’s fine tailoring and leisurewear. Women’s sportswear also has a nice chapter, although the section on accessories is small and not very informative. Overall the book is excellent. I am enjoying reading it and using it for future articles on high fashion in the 1930s.
Fashion History Books 1940s
Forties Fashion: From Siren Suits to the New Look by Jonathan Walford
Of all the books I had to research 1940s fashion for my 1940s Style Guide book, Jonathon Wolford’s had the best history. He dug deep into the specifics of rationing, alternative materials, and fashion beyond Europe. There are many great pictures of clothing, advertising, and propaganda which aid in the storytelling. It does not break down history by garment type or cover men’s fashion, which is the only drawback to it. If you are interested in the “why” of 1940s fashion more than the “what,” this book should be on your shelf too.
I have discontinued the 1940s Style Guide book (still sold on Amazon) in favor of including all my research and articles on the website for free!
Fashion History Books 1950s
If you want a book about the “what” of 1950s fashion, then Fifties Forever is a good start. It originally came under the title of 50’s Popular Fashion. The newer version has better photographs although the written information is the same. The author creates a visual diary of 1950s vintage clothing for women, men, and children sorted by type of garment. This is the type of book that is the most helpful to me when I begin researching a particular style of clothing. There isn’t much written about the clothing photographed, but what little is included speaks of all the important names of fabric or the silhouettes of dresses. The menswear and children’s section is equally illustrated as the women (a rare find). It is an older book, first published in 1982, but one that has no match to it yet. Find more books about 1950s fashion here.
1950s American Fashion (Shire Library USA) by Jonathan Walford
This very small book is packed with information on 1950s fashion. It surprised me, providing information I hadn’t read elsewhere. It focused on American fashion designs and their influence on the rest of the world which was refreshing to read. There is a list of noteworthy designers and recommend books for further study. The Shire Library has more little books on every decade of fashion, home, lifestyle, etc. I have many of them and I find them all helpful in beginning my research.
Fashion History Books 1960s
Sixties Fashion: From Less is More to Youthquake by Jonathan Walford
I was eager to read Walford’s newest book on 1960s fashion. I hoped it would have as much detailed cultural fashion history as his forties book had. Sadly, it does not. Its a very good book anyways, but it is typical in its exploration of major designers, models, trends and mentality of the swinging sixties. It has a decent section on menswear too which was missing from his Forties book. It lacks fashion for the middle and poor classes and shoes and accessories are hardly touched on as well. Since this is the only book dedicated to 1960s fashion I can find it is a valuable resource and one I will use again and again.
Find more books on 1960s fashion here.
Fashion History Books 1970s
Hippie Chic – All things hippie fashion from the 1960s to today.
Disco Fashion – Written from the perspective of Disco in the 1980s, there is still home useful information about 1970s fashion at the Disco dance.
Books by the VintageDancer
I, Debbie Sessions, have written extensive fashion history and style advice in a few published eBooks and free email courses for other decades of fashion:
My first book was the 1940s Style Guide: The Complete Illustrated Guide to 1940s Fashion for Women and Men. It is still available as an eBook ($9.99) or printed book ($14.00). Since its first publication, I have put most of the chapters online and revised/updated them. You can read them in the 1940s Style Guide email series for free. I leave the book available for sale for those who want to carry a copy with them.
To go with that I also have a free mini book 1940s Fashion for Your Body Type (women).
I then moved away from the 1940s and went back to the 1920s with another free mini eBook 1920s Fashion for Your Body Type (women) followed by, you guessed it, 1920s Style Guide, but this time I didn’t publish the book (yet). Instead, I turned it into a free blog series you can receive by email here. The series covers fashion history, cultural history, and dressing advice for both women and men. It arrives to you in order so that you don’t miss a single article. It is like reading the book one chapter at a time.
Then came the Great Gatsby in Fashion – an annotation of the Great Gatsby book looking at all the reference to ’20s fashion. What was Gas Blue? Pottery Bracelets? A Tennis outfit? All these and more explain for only $2.99
I also have a 1950s Style Guide email series. This one is only about women’s fashion in the 1950s. Over 40 articles will delivered to your inbox, one every other day.
Curious about all fashion decades? Subscribe to the regular blog list which shares new articles to your email. Topics range from Victorian to 1970s vintage fashion for women and men.
So that is my list (for now.) I have a steady stream of new books I have yet to read yet. I want to read and hopefully write another recommendation list for you. If you are curious about how I use books and other materials for researching fashion history, read this article here. It also includes some online sources for studying fashion history.