Reading List September 2006

Establishing Shots

Why certain picture books are always in style with style makers

They teach you to doctor denim like a pro … or a member of a Swiss biker gang. Karlheinz Weinberger’s Photos 1954–1995 is the Zurich-based photographer’s obsessive record of how outlaw style in the Alps evolved from proto-psychobilly (drainpipe jeans—the flies held together by chains, rivets, or actual horseshoes—worn with prizefighter belts bearing Elvis’s mug), to rebellious hippie (on top: matelot stripes under painted denim vests or intriguing layerings of fishnet, leather, ski knits, and SS paraphernalia; below: ass-hugging distressed jeans tucked into soft-leather cowboy boots), to Mitteleuropa Hell’s Angels (tattoos, guts, and furry helmets with Viking horns). A volume of enduring fascination for designers seeking to build a better beaten-up jean and photographers looking for new ways to shoot fashion’s most basic basic.

They show you how to prop a shoot on a budget … Sam Haskins’s Five Girls is a quirky volume from 1962 in which a quintet of semi-naked, fetchingly unself-conscious lovelies cavort with simple objects—among them a small mirror, a chair, and a beach ball. Notwithstanding lashings of false eyelashes and gallons of liquid liner (this was the ’60s, after all), these girls are now icons of self-delight. (And self-delight is of course the essence of fashion; why else buy something cute from Marni or Miu Miu?) Haskins, a South African known largely for his commercial work, is also responsible for Cowboy Kate (1964, to be reissued this October by Rizzoli), a deliciously cheesy soft-core study—of a back-combed, big-eyed beauty wearing little more than a gun belt and a Stetson—that fashion stylists turn to again and again when trying to make bland Hollywood stars look as edgy as that other wild Kate, Ms. Moss.

They do sporty-yet-tailored-plus- cornrows better than David Beckham … Jamel Shabazz’s Time Before Crack documents black New York in the years before the late-’80s drug devastation set in, a time when men in Crown Heights and Flatbush wore trilbies with track pants, sweatshirts with pin-striped suits. Shabazz, a former corrections officer at Rikers Island (whose earlier volume of work Back in the Days is the go-to manual for how to look roots hip-hop), sought to document a community on the brink of decline, but perhaps more important ensured that a to-die-for, hi-lo, hipster-fogey style would live on forever (particularly on the inspiration boards of certain European designers).

They promote the pleasures of dressing up … even if only to strip it all off. The fashion community’s fancy for Dita Von Teese—Bettie Page doppelgänger, wife of Marilyn Manson, and skilled champagne-glass skinny-dipper—is boundless and has, of late, brought back corseted waists and platformed soles. Her recent book, which can be entered from either the front or the back (yikes!) and thus has two titles (Burlesque and the Art of the Teese and Fetish and the Art of the Teese), discloses her most chic secrets, including how to powder one’s nose—or one’s latex catsuit.

They remind you that before there was fashion, there was texture, pattern, color, and shape … as seen, for example, in the robber crab or the reticulated python or the violescent sea whip or the eagle stones to be found in Albertus Seba’s Cabinet of Natural Curiosities. Seba, a Dutch pharmacist, commissioned illustrations of every one of the natural—and often grotesque—specimens that he collected. This spectacular volume contains every plate made between 1734 and 1765, and it underlies the recent trend in high fashion toward the quirky and the wunderkammer-ish: i.e., wearing or carrying stuff that looks like it might have been scavenged at Tulum or from the steamer trunk of your monkey-fur-wearing great-great-aunt.

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Sally Singer is the fashion news and features director at Vogue.

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