If you're seeking to gain a broad understanding of the fashion industry and how it works, we suggest beginning with these 12 foundational texts. These are books that offer a broad overview of the forces shaping today's fashion system, from profit margins to marketing to celebrities, as well as those that capture a specific decade, or decades, of fashion history. With the exception of Christian Dior (whose autobiography, we believe, is essential to understanding the history and process of French couture), we have left out individual biographies and memoirs, though we'll take this opportunity to say that those on or from Paul Poiret, Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, Yves Saint Laurent, Bill Blass and André Leon Talley are excellent. Enjoy!
"The End of Fashion: How Marketing Changed the Clothing Business Forever" by Teri Agins
If you only read one book on this list, read this. Though slightly dated now (it was published in 2000), Agins, a longtime fashion reporter at The Wall Street Journal, offers an overview of the modern fashion machine: how the big conglomerates, like LVMH, came to be; the triumph of marketing over design and, by extension, brands like Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren; the wheeling and dealing behind celebrity dressing; and more.
"Fashion (Oxford History of Art)" by Christopher Breward
If you're looking for a compact, well-illustrated overview of modern fashion history, start here. Also recommended: James Lavers's "Costume and Fashion: A Concise History," which will take you through Paleolithic dress all the way up to 1939, and Valerie Mendes and Amy de la Haye's "20th Century Fashion," which offers a decade-by-decade breakdown of styles and the cultural movements that drove them.
"Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion" by Elizabeth L. Cline
In 1965, 95 percent of the clothes Americans bought were made in America; today, that number is less than 3 percent. Part call to action, part historical text, fashion students will finish with a better understanding of why fast fashion chains are dominating our malls and our closets, why apparel manufacturing is no longer a major U.S. industry and what happens to our used clothes.
"Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster" by Dana Thomas
Luxury fashion used to connote a certain quality and exclusiveness; today, it's a term we use to talk about brands of a certain price point — never mind if they're peddling cheaply made leather bags at a mall near you. Thomas looks at the evolution of the luxury fashion industry, showing how brands like Prada and Burberry have sacrificed quality for profits, and how they whip up consumer appetites for their goods. It'll also teach you a good deal about modern manufacturing, production and marketing methods.
"The Fashion Designer Survival Guide" by Mary Gehlhar
Learn what it takes to get a label off the ground, from drafting a business plan to sourcing materials to getting the most out of a runway show.
"Dior by Dior: The Autobiography of Christian Dior" by Christian Dior
More than an autobiography, this neat little tome offers a step-by-step look at the entire haute couture process, from the first quiet sketch, to the packed showing in the grand salon, to the competitive client fittings.
"The Beautiful Fall: Lagerfeld, Saint Laurent, and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris" by Alicia Drake
Alicia Drake documents the careers of two of fashion's most important designers, Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld, with incredible biographical detail — so much detail, in fact, that Lagerfeld even sued Drake in 2006 for publishing so many personal details about his life.
"The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled into the Spotlight and Made History" by Robin Givhan
The Washington Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion critic offers a fascinating portrait of the American fashion industry in the '60s and '70s, a time when ready-to-wear was upsetting the long reign of couture, and when American designers finally emerged from the back rooms of the Garment District, put their own names on the labels and joined the ranks of high society.
"Hijacking the Runway: How Celebrities Are Stealing the Spotlight From Designers" by Teri Agins
These days it's celebrities — not designers — who have the real power in fashion. From Elizabeth Taylor to Jessica Simpson, Teri Agins charts the the rise of celebrity-branded fragrances and fashion labels and their increasingly powerful roles in today's fashion system.
"Gods and Kings" by Dana Thomas
Alexander McQueen and John Galliano rocked the fashion establishment in the 1990s, going on to head two of Paris fashion's most important houses — Givenchy (McQueen) and Dior (Galliano) — before encountering tragedy in 2010 and 2011, respectively. Full of salacious details, it is nevertheless an important document of the fashion of the '90s and early 'aughts.
"The Fashion System" by Roland Barthes
Published in 1968, this essay (not the easiest to read if you've been out of school for a few years) is immensely important, having established a system for interpreting the meaning of clothing details that still forms the basis for many fashion critics' approaches today.
"Dressed: A Century of Hollywood Costume Design" by Deborah Nadoolman Landis
If you ever wanted to know how costume design works in the movies, this is your book.