The hardest thing about writing a history of fashion is probably not the hundreds of hours of research required. The tricky part may not even be defining the sociological import of, say, Twiggy's false eyelashes or Henry VIII's padded codpiece.
In a book about fashion, tone is all: too dry, and the book will read like a tome; too flip, and it will appear merely to accentuate the subject's frivolousness. For the most part Schnurnberger neither panders nor ponders. She also manages to fill 400 pages with some fascinating factoids.
Beginning at the beginning—with the caveman's fur diaper—Schnurnberger covers everything from the origin of the veil to such failed experiments as the Zoot suit (early '40s) and the chain dress (1965). Intermediate stops include the invention of seersucker (from the Persian shir o shakkar, meaning "milk and sugar") and the origin of lace (to the Puritans a "temptation of Satan").
The author, a fashion writer (New York, Glamour, PEOPLE), occasionally ventures profitably into social history. (Her "Diary of a Greek Housewife" is particularly amusing.) But sometimes her voice squeaks—usually in too cute wordplay ("Waste Not, Quant Not" is the nonsensical heading of her section on '60s London designer Mary Quant). And the design of the book is so crammed and busy that reading it cover to cover would be overwhelming. So think of it instead as a World Book of Fashion—and keep this charming cultural encyclopedia for reference. (Workman, paper, $19.95)