My 15 Favourite Books: How to start a good Library
October 31, 2006
There are a lot of costuming books out there. Some are good, some are bad, and I've got a lot of them. Listed here is a small section of my costume library, and an even smaller section of my overall reference library (I've been collecting a long time), but I've picked the 15 best (in my opinion) for starting a good Elizabethan costume library. Some are expensive, but it's better to have one expensive good book than five cheap inaccurate books. Some of the books I've picked are out of print, but can be located through used book services like Alibris or AbeBooks, and of course, there's always Amazon).
Keep in mind that a book doesn't have to be specifically about costume to have useful clothing information; clothes are an integral part of culture, and their manufacture, sales, and use affect all members of society. As such, what may seem to be a boring book about Elizabethan economics can yield valuable data about the clothing trade, and who was importing/selling what in any given year. Once you start outfit your library with the essentials, don't limit yourself just to costume books.
There are also bad books out there - these feature poor scholarship, inaccurate information, and/or sloppy writing. For a good list of books to avoid, check out Dr. Grace Morris' excellent article Bad Books I have Known. I would also add any book written for Renaissance Faire people, such as Janet Winter and Carolyn Savoy's Elizabethan Costuming for the years 1550-1580 (a fine book, if you want a costume, but historically accurate, it's not). Don't bother to buy these books unless you use them, like I do, to understand how unfortunate ideas propagate (being able to say "I'm sorry, but you got that information from [name] book, and I'm afraid it's not correct" - nicely! - is occasionally useful).
Anyway, the books (arranged alphabetically):
1. The Art of Dress: Clothes and Society 1500-1914, Jane Ashelford, The National Trust, 2000.
- While there are only two chapters that are relevant to the Elizabethan enthusiast, they are sumptuously illustrated and very informative. Ashelford delves into the manufacture and resale of clothing in London, and gives a very workable overview of aristocratic clothing, using primary sources as her guide.
2. Before The Mast: Life and Death Aboard the Mary Rose, edited by Julie Gardiner with Micheal J. Allen, The Mary Rose Trust, 2005.
- a book of original artifacts and discussion of same, BFM is focused solely on the archaelogical finds from the 1545 sinking of the Mary Rose, providing a perfect time capsule of Tudor artifacts. Even though it's slightly pre-Elizabethan, the plethora of artifacts from this time is invaluable to the scholar of everyday life (for instance, they've found plaid clothing scraps, and an unprecedented number of leather jerkins). This is an expensive book, but absolutely worth it.
3. Blackwork, Mary Gostelow, B.T. Batsford Ltd., 1976.
- An old library copy of this book got me started on Elizabethan embroidery many many years ago, and I was lucky enough to score a copy of the original edition (now out of print) in an antiques store. It has been reprinted by Dover Books, (with one or two of the colour pictures now in black and white). As with all Gostelow's embroidery books, Blackwork is designed not only to inform the reader, but to get them embroidering. While her design suggestions are modern, the fill stitches and embroidery techniques are valid for Elizabethan embroidery, and she has a good historical overview of the craft, including pictures of embroidered items not normally on view to the public.
4. British Embroidery: Curious Works from the Seventeenth Century, Kathleen Epstein, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1999.
- The exhibition catalogue from an exhibition at the DeWitt Wallace Collection in Williamsburg, VA. Good discussion of the composition and possible use of items and textile fragments from the 17th century.
5. Elizabethan Embroidery, George Wingfield Digby, Faber & Faber, 1963.
- This book is currently out of print, but if you can locate a copy, it is still one of the best overviews of Elizabethan needlework available. Wingfield Digby's scholarship is generally sound, and unlike many of his predecessors, he used and cited original sources for his research, which means the reader can track them down and verify them.
6. An Elizabethan Inheritance: The Hardwick Hall Textiles, Santina M. Levey, The National Trust, 1998.
- As the title suggests, this book covers the furnishings at Hardwick Hall. Not clothing, though many of the materials and techniques apply to bothe clothing and furnishing, and useful for that purpose. Also not exclusively Elizabethan,
though there is a comprehensive Elizabethan section. For more information on the Elizabethan Hardwick Hall, see The Hardwick Hall Inventories of 1601, Lindsay Boynton, The Furniture History Society, London, 1971.
7. Embroidered Gardens, Thomasina Beck, Viking Press, 1979.
- I think this book is now out of print, but second-hand copies should still be available. A sweet book, designed as inspiration for modern embroiderers, Beck's love for her subject really comes through. An overview of gardens in needlework from Elizabethan to Modern, this book has lots of black and white illustrations of Elizabethan needlework, some of which cannot be found easily elsewhere. Also by the same author, and similarly inspiring: The Embroiderer's Flowers, The Embroiderer's Story, and Gardening with Silk and Gold.
8. Historical Fashion in Detail, Avril Hart and Susan North, V&A Publications, 1998.
- Though the number of Elizabethan period items covered in this book is small, the level of detailed examination makes this book worth having. With photographs clear enough to see the tiniest stitches, this book makes it possible to track sewing and embroidery techniques through several centuries.
9. Mary Gostelow's Embroidery Book, Mary Gostelow, E.P. Dutton, 1978.
- I don't know if this book has been reprinted (my edition is out of print), but if you can get your hands on a copy, get it. All the little complicated and detailed stitches used in Elizabethan embroidery (plus a bunch of other techniques) are explained with diagrams clear enough for even an embroidering idiot like me to understand. Other good books by this author include A World of Embroidery, and The Art of Embroidery.
10. Material Culture in London in an Age of Transition: Tudor and Stuart finds c. 1450-c.1700 from excavations at riverside sites in Southwark, Geoff Egan, MoLAS Monograph 19, Museum of London, 2005.
- Again, when possible, it's always best to explore the original artifacts, and see what museum experts have to say on the matter. The more recent the work the better (generally), as new finds are made all the time. This book is an overview of finds with interesting sections on dress accessories and metal clothing bits.
11. Patterns of Fashion: The Cut and Construction of Clothes for Men and Women c. 1560-1620, Janet Arnold, 1985.
- This book really is vital for any serious Elizabethan costumer. Looking at originals is completely different from trying to interpret portraits, and the unprecedented access Arnold was given to these garments opened up so much information that was not previously available. Meticulously researched and illustrated with scale drawings for each garment, this book remains the benchmark for historical research.
12. Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd, Janet Arnold, W.S. Maney & Sons Ltd., 1988.
- An exhaustively researched and well-written book. Anyone serious about costume scholarship should have this book, or your library simply isn't complete. Really. It's worth every penny.
13. The Tailor's Pattern Book, 1589, Juan de Alcega, Facsimile, with translation by Jean Pain and Cecelia Bainton, Costume and Fashion Press, 1999.
- There's nothing quite like going to the source, and in the case of Spanish costume, the TPB is undeniably the source. While the pattern layouts are not to scale, anyone with minor skill at drafting and measuring will get a lot of use out of this book, as will the fashion scholar researching specific cuts and pattern techniques. This book is useful for almost any European costume research of the time, since clothes were exported from country to country.
14. The Tudor Tailor: Reconstructing sixteenth-century dress, Ninya Mikhaila and Jane Malcolm-Davies, B.T. Batsford Ltd., 2006.
- The latest book written by re-enactors and costumers, TTT is, fortunately and delightfully, an excellent addition to any library. While their interpretation of a couple of things differs from mine, overall their book is very informative and helpful (and they're published, I'm not; take that as you will). Their scholarship is impressive, and there is tons of good information in the historical section as well as the how-to part.
15. The Victoria & Albert Museum's Textile Collection: Embroidery in Britain from 1200 to 1750, Donald King and Santina Levey, V&A Museum, 1995.
- Mostly a valuable catalogue of embroidery in the museum with lots of lovely colour plates, this book also includes a short essay on post-medieval embroidery that is very interesting and worth reading.
Text and images copyright L. Mellin, 2000-2008, except where noted. All rights reserved.