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Book Review: A Life in Fashion: The Wardrobe of Cecil Beaton

Book Review: A Life in Fashion: The Wardrobe of Cecil Beaton

Benjamin Wild, A Life in Fashion: The Wardrobe of Cecil Beaton, Thames & Hudson, $50, 144 pp., March 2016

For many, Cecil Beaton is a noted fashion photographer. For others, he is an accomplished costume designer. And for those who are old enough to remember (or who are big fans) he was an incredibly sharp dresser—an aspect of his life explored in the new book A Life in Fashion: The Wardrobe of Cecil Beaton. Written by Benjamin Wild (with a forward from fashion photographer Tim Walker), A Life in Fashion explores Beaton’s style, decade by decade, in minute detail. 

In the forward, Walker—whose own work is whimsical even when it’s simplistic—describes the first time he encountered Beaton’s photographs, and how they opened up a world of creative possibility for him. It’s a good place to start, as (save for the introduction), Wild does not delve into the details of Beaton’s career. By necessity his work is mentioned, but for the most part A Life in Fashion is entirely focused on Beaton’s wardrobe, and the connection clothes had to his personal life. Any conclusions that can be drawn between how his style fed into his work (or vice versa) are left to the reader to determine for themselves, assuming, of course, that they are familiar with Beaton’s photography.

Beaton was a creative man, no doubt, and Wild does an excellent job of covering how he expressed his creativity sartorially throughout his life. But a tome that also covered Beaton’s professional output, as well as a theoretical exploration of what the information presented means would have been sprawling and overwhelming for a reader. Especially as Wild has an impressive wealth of primary information to work with, including photographs, diary entries, tailor’s records, biographies, and the clothes themselves. 

Wild skips Beaton’s childhood and adolescence and begins in the 1920s, with his time at Cambridge University, a particularly interesting time in which he navigated social class and acceptance in peer groups through fashion. “He certainly believed clothes had a transformative effect, and could make him feel like a different person,”[1] Wild writes after noting that while Beaton wanted to be more “extravagant” with his fashion at the time (even makeup), he could not always afford to do so. Nor could he get away with being as outlandish as friends of a higher class, as their social stature often gave them leeway in how they were perceived.

Wild references the sartorial personalities of those in Beaton’s social circle in part to give context to his subject’s surroundings, but also because what other people were wearing were also of great importance to Beaton. The author also points out how Beaton’s diary entries are illuminating in how he saw himself, even if they contradict his actual behavior, highlighting Wild’s ability to bring together information to paint a well-rounded picture.

It’s interesting think about how tailoring transforms the body, even in the most subtle ways, as well as what parts of himself Beaton, specifically, wanted to highlight.

Moving through the 1930s Beaton comes into his own both professionally and a sartorially, with Wild noting that as he garnered notoriety for his photography, it became even more important to him that he was dressed well. It is at this time that he begins to frequent Savile Row tailors, from which Wild gets arguably his most interesting piece of primary information: Beaton’s measurements.

A Life in Fashion takes time to consider Beaton’s body, and how he was dressing it, in terms of how the clothes actually fit his figure. It’s interesting think about how tailoring transforms the body, even in the most subtle ways, as well as what parts of himself Beaton, specifically, wanted to highlight. He liked to show off his naturally tall, thin figure, and draw attention to his waist, with tight-fitting suits, shorter jackets, and (in his earlier years) wider pants legs.

One particularly interesting detail is Beaton’s stylistic preference for deep shirt collars—something Wild notes began in his youth and continued into his later years. “In adulthood and when funds were more plentiful, Beaton could request lager collars on his bespoke shirting,” writes Wild. “In his youth, photographs suggest he achieved a similar look by wearing lager-sized, possibly even second-hand, clothing.”[2] The fact that he improvised when he was younger, and carried things out in a more polished manner as an adult is a mundane detail, but one that anyone who was interested in fashion at a young age and grappled with pulling off fashionable attire without the income to support it can relate to. 

As the book moves into later decades there are more insights into the role fashion plays in Beaton’s life as his personality grows, as well as how he ages. Early on Wild mentions that Beaton’s measurements remain the same. But fashion, of course, does not. By the ‘60s Beaton hits his stride both professionally and sartorially, but even he was not immune to wanting to feel sartorially relevant. Wild mentions that at one point in 1965, Beaton began buying suits from then-couturier-of-the-moment Pierre Cardin. But the moment was fleeting, with the photographer returning to Savile Row. “It hints at a tension between wearing clothes that were comfortable and current.”[3]

By the end of the book the reader has a better understanding of how Beaton crafted an identity through his wears, and how he believed in “the psychological empowerment of clothing.”[4] But at this point the reader should wonder, was Beaton also (to a certain degree) trapped by fashion, needing to be stylish and/or perfect at all times? Had he built up a reputation for himself that required considerable effort to keep up?

A Life in Fashion is not for the casual reader (it is, after all, an academic-leaning text from Thames & Hudson). But for those who have a good enough working knowledge of Beaton to seek out information about his wardrobe, as well as a good enough working knowledge of fashion history to understand Beaton’s individuality (even in the most passing sense), A Life in Fashion is an astoundingly well-researched read. Its projects like this that make one think of all the possibilities for wardrobe studies if the appropriate primary information exists in such abundance. For the average person, records are so rarely available. Still, it is an interesting approach to studying a fashion figure.



[1] Benjamin Wild, A Life in Fashion: The Wardrobe of Cecil Beaton (London: Thames & Hudson, 2016), 34.

[2] Wild, 65.

[3] Ibid, 78.

[4] Ibid, 89.

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