It’s the end of 2015, a time when most people look ahead to the tenors and trends of the coming year. But with his first book, Iconic Dresses: 25 Moments in Twentieth Century Fashion ($35; chroniclebooks.com), British fashion expert William Banks-Blaney makes a compelling case to look back—way, way back.
Yes, as the title would suggest, Iconic Dresses is a book filled with gorgeous images of couture by the likes of Balmain (above) Chanel, Lanvin, Vionnet, Balenciaga, Saint Laurent, Givenchy, and more, but it also offers intellectual heft. Banks-Blaney, once an interior designer and current owner of WilliamVintage, a popular vintage haute couture shop in London, delves into the details, dissecting each designer’s history and their legacy that—as he discovered while writing—influenced more than fashion. "This is the story of women," he said recently over coffee at New York’s Soho House. "It's a very feminist matter. The 20th century changed so much for women, and fashion shows that. It's a cultural book as much as it is a fashion book."
Just consider the reaction he recounts of Christian Dior’s first show in 1947, featuring his "Corolle" collection (pictured on the book's cover, above), which debuted during a time of strict fabric and food rationing following World War II: "Dior’s opulent New Look left women either mesmerized or enraged that after so many years of sartorial freedom, during which they proved themselves capable of working in industry, Dior placed them back on a pedestal as an object of worship, and while doing so made their waists smaller and their skirts longer. The approach was deemed by many to be as constraining as that of eighteenth-century Versailles with complaints that Dior was every bit as decadent as Marie Antoinette."
And that is how Banks-Blaney zeroed in on the designer's "Corolle" collection—which has since become the basis for every cocktail dress you see today—over his countless other unforgettable dresses. "I wanted dresses to be pieces that weren't just a great dress," he says. "I wanted them to represent a moment where fashion shifts."
So who, then, does he think is shifting 21st-century fashion? Look no further than the country he calls home. "British fashion is the strongest it has been since the '60s, and standouts for me are Simone Rocha, Erdem, and Mary Katrantzou," he says. "London fashion currently has a strong signature and many young designers who are really shaping looks around the globe."