Decades by Cameron Silver
There’s something very alluring about coffee table books, especially ones that could function as coffee tables all on their own. (This sucker is heavy!) While my editing side finds their lackadaisical publishing information pages frustrating, I can’t help but find them very glamorous. As someone who appreciates the codex, they’re a bit like finding a gorgeous version of a very functional object. Which is exactly why I picked up Decades, even as I tried to justify it by trying to learn more about twentieth-century fashion design. (And even that is just a way to hug the eighties just a little bit closer.) But a coffee table book isn’t really the place to start to get yourself properly contextualized…
Decades, subtitled “A Century of Fashion”, is written by Cameron Silver (with some help from Rebecca DiLiberto), the owner of Decades, the vintage boutique in Los Angeles that supplies all the stars with their vintage frocks. Given his fifteen years of experience “curating” (Silver’s preferred term) Decades, Silver knows quite a lot about fashion. The book is separated out by decade, highlighting the fashion idols, fashion designers, and other trends that dictated what was fashionable and what washes up in Silver’s store.
I approach fashion as costume design; when I attack my closet in the morning (by which I mean flailing around in the dark), I ask myself what I’m feeling like today. The answer is usually something like “I feel like a mermaid!” or “I feel like Noel Fielding!”, and I do my best to express that feeling from my wardrobe. (The former went more Sailor Neptune, and the latter is why I own polka-dotted jeans.) This comes from my involvement in theater and from being a queer hard femme who didn’t manage to properly articulate herself sartorially until college. I have done my time, is what I’m saying, to arrive at a view of fashion that is inclusive, celebratory, and colorful.
I forget that other people aren’t there yet, and a lot of those people are in positions of power in the fashion industry itself.
I’m sure Cameron Silver is a nice guy. I really loved reading about how he approaches vintage garments and the stories they tell: it’s the same reason I loved buying used books and otherwise digging through thrift stores. (Sheba, why would you give up the copy of She’s So Unusual that now decorates my wall? You are a puzzle, Sheba.) In seeing him frame himself as a curator, I saw myself a bit, or at least some of the same impulses. I’m also sure, because DiLiberto is credited in a very casual way, that this book is probably mostly ghostwritten and falls back on a lot of basic stereotypes because they are easy.
And yet… it’s hard to sift through something like this when you’re constantly presented a very thin slice of womanhood and being told that’s everything that matters. Being told that a woman could either be a Gibson Girl or a Waterhouse maiden, or a supermodel or a waif, raises red flags. The constant implication that feminine power is inherently sexual and femme sits poorly on me; not just because I envision feminine power much differently, but also because there are a thousand ways for that to work. And then there’s this, which segues into bashing Björk’s swan dress: “But the most intellectually compelling garments aren’t always the most flattering to a woman’s beauty, especially when worn on the red carpet” (237). Because feeling like a boss because you just crashed the Oscars with a stuffed swan ‘pon your breast is, apparently, not feeling beautiful, because it someone finds it unflattering. People sometimes roll their eyes at media criticism, but this is why that’s important: unchallenged, this is the stuff ghostwriters fall back on, the stuff that they believe is universal, the stuff that’s so common that people internalize it and therefore believe that they are not capable of being beautiful or powerful because they do not stand up to a standard defined by another person. (Spoiler alert: everybody is beautiful freaks. Spread the word.) And this is just a coffee table book; imagine the damage blockbuster films do. Get your teeth on, readers, it’s important.
Also, on a technical note: why mention important dresses but fail to photograph them? Silver and DiLiberto reference Elsa Schiaparelli’s 1938 Skeleton Dress, but don’t show it. (Probably because it’s not flattering.) I would have also loved to have heard more from Silver’s specific perspective, but his voice vanishes as soon as we hit the meat of the book. I understand the limitations of this book as something to page through absent-mindedly at someone else’s home; I also understand that there are ways of doing something light and digestible without being so flippantly exclusive or lacking a voice.
Just so this post isn’t a total downer, I’ll leave you with some proper advice about feeling awesome from fellow tuxedo-clad lady, Marlene Dietrich, quoted in this very tome: “Glamour … is assurance. It is a kind of knowing that you are all right in every way, mentally and physically and in appearance, and that, whatever the occasion or the situation, you are equal to it” (74). If glamour is confidence, you get to decide what your glamour is. Nobody else.
Bottom line: There’s a way to write something light and fluffy about the fashion industry without being so flippantly exclusive or lacking a voice. Pass.
I rented this book from the public library.