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From Head to Toe    by Janice Weaver & Francis Blake order for
From Head to Toe
by Janice Weaver
Order:  USA  Can
Tundra, 2003 (2003)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Having always believed that piercing of ears (never mind other body parts) was a form of self-mutilation, I enjoyed reading, in From Head to Toe, about many 'Other Bizarre and Beautiful Things' that people have done to their bodies in the name of fashion through the ages. Francis Blake's comic illustrations do an excellent job of pointing out their absurdity - for example 16th century Venetian 'chopines'.

I learned inside these covers how the invention of the bicycle helped to liberate women from 7 kilos of hooped skirts and petticoats into the freedom of 'bloomers'. And it's not just about women. The Zoot Suit riots in 1940s LA give another example of how fashion and social issues are intertwined. There's the introduction of the necktie in ancient China, the invention of blue jeans, tattooing in 8000 BC, high heel shoes initially worn by men, and the regulation of hair length and facial hair to show class and religious affiliation through the ages. Isn't it curious how people have decorated themselves to differentiate groups from each other throughout history?

The Egyptians pop out of the book's pages time and time again as fashion innovators - from parasols and wigs to costume jewelry and (often toxic) cosmetics. Though Weaver tells us that 'Anthropologists have called the human body the first canvas for artistic expression', neither lead-based face powders nor ground ants' eggs (to highlight the eyes) particularly appeals to me; the cost of beauty is just too high! But I was entertained by the origins of words like bigwigs and falsehoods, and by terms like 'mad as a hatter'.

Another interesting perspective is how many of the more restrictive fashion practices (such as crippling foot binding, and corsets laced so tightly that they caused internal damage) originated in the upper classes. Similarly I read recently in Seierstad's Bookseller of Kabul that the Afghan burka originally set apart noblewomen and was only later adopted by the lower classes. A life of privilege did not necessarily imply a life of comfort for women. Another interesting fashion trend was one that flip-flopped back and forth between pale and tanned skin. The latter used to be a (lower class) sign of working outdoors, which evolved to become an (upper class) signal of leisure time.

I read From Head to Toe with absorption; it's fascinating and fun for all ages, reminding us just how silly we can become while following fashion.

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