…wrapped in cloth.

Within minutes of birth, throughout life and even into the grave, we are wrapped in cloth. All of our public lives are spent within this envelope of meaning, this visual and material expression of a self within its own context of culture and history.” Dr Elaine Webster, at the opening of the Fashion Rules OK! exhibition at Special Collections at the University of Otago Library, 11 March 2016.
One of the exhibits is the stunningly beautiful and remarkable Le Costume Historique by Auguste Racinet, published in 1888. I was really frustrated at only being able to see two jewel-like pages, under the glass of the vitrine…

So how excited was I to find this on the shelves the other day:


Hooray, Taschen, publishers of spectacular art and design books at prices that radically democratise both those notoriously expensive cultural pastimes, has published an edited version of the 6-volume original as Racinet: The Costume History, in their Bibliotheca Universalis range.
An extremely pleasing hardback just 19.5cm high by 14cm, its 768 pages are full of beautiful reproductions of all 500 plates of the orginal. As the editor, Francoise Tetart-Vittu, says, there wasn’t any sensible way to include all of Racinet’s detailed, surprisingly witty, commentary – the original has over 1300 pages of writing. Racinet attempted to survey all the modes of dress in the known world from antiquity to the end of the 19th-century, to understand what the cloth or hide or feathers or bark meant to, and about, the people wearing them.
Yes, he is a man of his time, with attitudes towards other cultures that reflect the great colonial projects being undertaken by the European powers of the day, but he is also genuinely interested in the clothing worn by people in Oceania, in Africa and Asia, and in the Americas, and in what that clothing, and its variations mean in those cultures from the chiefiest Chiefs and most imperial Emperors to the slaves and peasants under their feet. He casts just such an exacting, anthropological eye at the frills, corsets and finery of his own time and place.

So reader, I bought it immediately, tout suite as it were (which happens less often than you’d think or else I couldn’t feed the cat, but honestly, at $40 it feels like a gift, a gift,  from Taschen) and told several people about it over the weekend who came and got one too, so now we are out of it, but do not fuss, more are on their way…

In the meantime, look at these images from the inside, and consider the cloth you are wearing right now…




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