Like a lot of people this year, I've availed myself of a few different excellent library systems and gotten a lot of reading done. I thought for an end-of-year treat, I'd share the books I'd recommend and what makes them worth reading. And wouldn't you know it, my reading just happens to sort of self-sift into twelve different subject areas, so it's twelve days of reading! Each day's recommendations newsletter will clock in at 600 words or less, so you can gulp this quick bite when you need a minute to yourself. Enjoy giving your Libby app a vigorous workout or making some independent bookseller very happy.
THE MINOR ARTS
The title of today's dispatch comes from the British photographer and designer Cecil Beaton: "When we talk about fashion or the minor arts, we really mean the whole art of living."
He wrote that in The Glass of Fashion: A Personal History of Fifty Years of Changing Tastes and the People Who Have Inspired Them, a book that casually mixes autobiography with critical analysis of the fashion industry. It's also the obvious antecedent to two books I had previously read, Ilene Beckerman's Love, Loss and What I Wore and Andrea Linnett's I Want to Be Her, both of which do an entertaining job of showing how an outfit can be an autobiographical snapshot.
Reading the book was not unlike listening to a Diana Vreeland interview; both Beaton and Vreeland -- two people who arguably shaped the presentation of style through the arch of the 20th century -- are of a time and social background where one strove to alchemize a sharply personal opinion into a universal insight.
So reading Beaton put me in mind of Vreeland's corpus -- her early fixation on dance in general and her association with the Ballets Russes in particular, and that led to Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet by Jennifer Homans. This cultural history gracefully leads the reader from the French aristocracy to the Cold War, explaining when and how larger cultural forces shaped a new innovation in dance. Someone who enjoys observing the feedback loops between specific art forms and the wider world in which they're practiced will enjoy this book.
That person may also like How to Read a Dress. A Guide to Changing Fashion from the 16th to the 20th Century by Lydia Edwards. This book is a dream for detail-oriented people who relish being able to catch movie costume designers using the wrong shoe shape for a picture set in the early 1960s and there's just enough context to explain each detail.
However, Fashion: The Definitive History of Costume and Style is a livelier read for the layperson. Each topic is presented as a historically rich and aesthetically appealing history lesson, reminding one that the minor arts don't exist in a void.
Nor do these arts exist independent of politics. In Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World's Richest Museum, Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino tell the story of how western museums have built up their collections through theft and double-dealing, aided and abetted by the well-connected or well-cultured. The book unfolds like a whodunit and reminds the reader that every lovely object in a gallery carries a (sometimes ugly) history.
Sometimes I felt a little frivolous to be reading about the minor arts, yet paradoxically it was a book about interior design, Michelle Ogundehin's Happy Inside: How to Harness the Power of Home for Health and Happiness, which exonerated me. Ogundehin, the former editor of Elle Decoration UK and presenter on BBC Two's Interior Design Masters, asserts that one of the foundational tenets of being happy is becoming open to accepting things as they are:
Acceptance is definitely not about passive resignation, but rather about seeing things as they really are, not clouded by emotion or prejudice. In this state of mind we do three things: we seek solutions rather than complaining; we focus on finding beauty in the everyday; and we practise letting go, because we understand that resisting what ‘is’ is ultimately futile.
If Beaton's book was a call to define the minor arts as important to living, Ogundehin's book provided a tripartite approach for living a little more artfully in a year when that could be a real challenge. Here's to all of us becoming the artists our lives deserve in 2021.
BOOKS MENTIONED IN THIS NEWSLETTER:
Fashion: The Definitive History of Costume and Style, DK Publishing
Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World's Richest Museum, Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino
Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet, Jennifer Homans
Happy Inside: How to Harness the Power of Home for Health and Happiness, Michelle Ogundehin