In 1876, French scholar and artist Auguste Racinet published Le Costume historique (The Costume History), an illustrated sartorial tour throughout world history. This six-volume work, with 500 detailed color illustrations, spanned millennia, from the ancient Egyptians’ plumed headdresses to bedazzled medieval crowns to the felt leggings of 19th-century Russian peasants. To this day, the book remains the most thorough and intricately illustrated study of global fashions ever attempted.
Now, this “Bible of Costume,” as French newspaper Le Figaro called it, has been reprinted in its colorful entirety by Taschen. The publishing house had previously printed a compilation of Racinet’s plates, but the newest version is arranged according to his original organization by culture and subject, and presents his witty commentary alongside the illustrations. It’s an accessible, elaborate visual history of all the weird, uncomfortable clothes people thought looked good, from massive, powdered wigs to feathered war helmets. Contemporary artists, designers, illustrators, and historians will find no shortage of inspiration in its pages.
Thanks to globalization, the hyper-specific traditional clothing styles of individual cultures around the world are now in danger of extinction; they’re increasingly being replaced by the mass-manufactured contemporary uniform of T-shirts and jeans. France’s styles are no longer as distinct from England’s as they were in the 18th century; clothing no longer signifies social status as obviously as it did in ages of bejeweled royalty lording over peasantry. In this context, The Costume History is a documentary treasure trove, compactly preserving outmoded styles all in one place. “For the 21st-century reader, [The Costume History] offers a chance to reconstruct ancient times, an exercise of memory and imagination that has its own charms,” writes Francoise Tetart-Vittu in the book’s introduction.
That doesn’t mean The Costume History is without its problems. “Let there be no mistake, this work dates from the period when the West dreamed of establishing an indefinite reign over the entire world,” Tetart-Vittu writes. Racinet’s 19th-century colonialist bias comes through in his book’s Eurocentrism; for example, he devotes a mere 15 illustrations to the clothing and ornament of the African continent, as opposed to dozens of illustrations and pages of text on the fashions of his native France. “The wide range of authors that Racinet consulted when undertaking his panorama of national and ethnic customs included very disparate sources, such as Latin writers and the narratives of explorers now forgotten. But the sources that he synthesizes with such brio were almost invariably European.”
Still, Tetart-Vittu argues that “When we read Racinet attentively, we cannot but perceive his openness of mind. The notion of constituting a sort of general archive of costume, including in a single work all times, places, epochs, forms and tastes — the very idea of demonstrating the eclecticism of the world’s cultures — takes its place in a vast project tending to emphasize the extraordinary diversity of humankind.”
Auguste Racinet’s Complete Costume History, published by Taschen, is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.