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How to read a dress: Ways women's clothes tell the story of Western societies through the ages

Nylon day dress worn in Perth in the 1950s.
Classic 1950s silhouette: A new book explores the changes in women's fashion over the centuries.

Supplied: Lydia Edwards

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For centuries, getting dressed has been a way for women to show the world who they are.

But as Perth academic Lydia Edwards shows in her new book, How To Read A Dress, there's much more to learn from a frock.

In an extensive series of illustrated and annotated history, she analyses what women have worn over the past 400 years and what the fashion represented at each point in time.

Lydia Edwards, author of How to read a dress.
Lydia Edwards, author of How To Read A Dress.

ABC Radio Perth: Emma Wynne

"It tells you a lot about women's lives."

Dresses reflect life

Dr Edwards' fascination with costumes and period dress started as a child.

"I was about four and interested in knights and castles," she said.

"I went on to be interested in clothes; all my interests were based in clothes really.

"I was into ballet for the clothes and the TV version of Pride And Prejudice came out in 1995 — I was obsessed with that."

Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I
Films and TV dramas have fuelled interest in historical dress.

Working Title Films

Her book is a mine of information for people who want to understand more about the complex fashions they see on screen.

"There is huge interest in historical TV drama and fiction at the moment," Dr Edwards said.

The book starts in 1560, two years after Elizabeth I ascended the English throne, and gives an insight into what went into their extraordinary outfits.

"There were these huge plate-like hoop skirts that come out from the waist and the skirt just fell down at the front, so it would make it very hard to move around or interact with other people," she said.

"For the wealthy it would have been one or two people that helped you and it would take up to half an hour to help you get dressed."

Dress was also a key indicator of social status.

"Elizabeth I had laws where she would only let certain women wear cloth of gold and silver, and also embellishments and certain furs could only be worn by royalty.

From political to practical

The book goes on to trace the changes in dress caused by political upheaval of the English civil war and the country's Restoration.

It gives details of the empire line dresses made famous by the screen adaptations of Jane Austen novels before moving on to the exceptional shapes that emerged in the Victorian era like the wide hoop skirt and the bustle.

How to read a dress pages.
How To Read A Dress covers women's fashion from the 16th to the 20th century.

ABC Radio Perth: Emma Wynne

By the end of the 20th century, fashions had slimmed down and were far less political and much more practical.

"When the big hoop skirts went out of fashion in the 1860s, they were left with lots of fabric in the skirt that was no longer being held up.

"So the bustle came in as a way to bring all that fabric up and a way to drape it and keep it up off the ground.

"Then it became fashionable in its own right, and then it became really extreme and huge in the 1880s.

"Then very quickly it seems to us, people decided they didn't like that anymore and wanted to go back to a much smoother, straighter skirt in the 1890s.

WA's colonial style

striped silk taffeta wedding dress
One page in the book details a striped silk taffeta wedding dress worn by a WA bride.

Supplied: Lydia Edwards

While most of the early dresses in the book come from Europe and the United States, Dr Edwards was also able to include substantial local collections, including the Swan Guildford Historical Society's rich wardrobe of outfits from early years of colonisation in Western Australia.

"Even in tiny rural towns in Western Australia, we have examples of women being very up to date with trends and being able to get hold of patterns and making their own clothes that were actually very closely aligned with what people were wearing in Sydney and even in London."

The book ends in 1970, about the time when women started to regularly wear trousers and the dress ceased to be the primary garment.

Future fashion

In the modern era of fast fashion and diverse and rapidly changing trends, will it be possible for historians in the future to "read" women's clothing?

"It will be different. It's hard for us now to see the changes," Dr Edwards said.

"But looking back we can definitely recognise '70s, '80s and even '90s looks.

"It will definitely be less extreme.