The Art of Dress: Western printed books from the Bodleian Library

A display at the Bodleian Library
26 February – 26 April 2015

This exhibition is now closed.


These books are witness to the central part clothes play in people’s lives. The selection is divided into three themes: costume books, tailoring manuals, and critiques of dress. The display gives a flavour of the distinctive and vivid documentation for dress.

Visit the display in person
Opening times
Mon-Fri 9am-5pm
Sat 9am-4.30pm
Sun 11am-5pm

(All images are protected by copyright. Please do not use without permission.)


Illustrated costume books published in Europe have recorded and described clothes since the Renaissance. Included in the display are Cesare Vecellio’s 1598 chronicle of world clothing, Habiti Antichi et Moderni di Tutto il Mondo, a page from Auguste Racinet’s ambitious study in twenty volumes, Le Costume Historique, published in Paris between 1876 and 1888, and Max Tilke’s 1922 Oriental Costumes: Their Designs and Colours with detailed illustrations, one to a page, by the author.


Auguste Racinet, Le Costume Historique, Paris, 1876–88
17503 b.17

The tailoring books range from precise instruction manuals for professional craftsmen such as Thomas Hiram Holding, Ladies' Garment Cutting,1890, to do-it-yourself handbooks containing ideas for home dressmakers such as The New Butterick Dressmaker of 1927. All of them, whether they date from the sixteenth century or the twentieth, show how much time and patience has been invested in the making of garments of all kinds.


Thomas Hiram Holding, Ladies’ Garment Cutting, London, 1890
1787 d. 12




Dress has invited much comment throughout the centuries and such a pervasive and habitual part of life has been variously interpreted. The third theme in this display presents just a few of the many volumes that seek to find meaning in dress or that criticise the fashions of the day. Two of the books included are Mrs Merrifield’s Dress as a Fine Art of 1854 which attempted to put the study of dress on a more intellectual footing and Eric Gill’s 1937 polemic, Trousers and the Most Precious Ornament which railed against trousers for men.


Mrs Merrifield, Dress as a Fine Art, London, 1854
175 g.28

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