Reading about Fashion as the Mirror of History

51V8FJ+8hmL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_Albee, S. (2015). Why’d they wear that? Fashion as the mirror of history. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society.

Description: From “The Ancient World (10,000 B.C. – A.D. 1000)” to “World at War (20th Century and Beyond),” Albee’s Why’d They Wear That? narrates world history by describing the fashions, fads, and clothing innovations of each era. In the forward, Albee says, “For hundreds and in some cases thousands of years, each historical era in every region of the world had a distinct story to tell” (p. 7). The first “fashion” Albee describes is the tanning method people used in 5,000 B.C to keep animal skins from rotting away. A later passage explains why women in Europe’s royal courts from the 1400s to 1800s had to curtsy instead of bow: Tight corsets didn’t allow them to bend at the waist. Albee’s book is full of interesting facts like these, using clothing and style to illustrate the realities of daily living throughout the course of history.

Quantitative Reading Level:  ATOS 7.7 (gr. 7 – 8), Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease 81.7 (ages 13 – 15), Lexile Level Unavailable

Qualitative Reading Level: This book is moderately complex in its text structures and use of language. Divided into historical eras from 10,000 B.C. to present day, each chapter has a wide expanse of content to cover. Chapters are further subdivided by fashion innovations or elements, sometimes out of chronological order. Graphics include primary source artwork, as well as photographs of museum-quality sculptures, clothing, and accessories. The font is large with colorful inserts. Visual elements take up at least 50% of the space. Using fashion as an access point to interest young people in history, the author successfully achieves her purpose with engaging visual material and high-interest trivia about antiquated—and often bizarre—fashion rituals. While a modest interest in history is necessary to fully engage with this text, most readers from the ages of 11 to 16 will have enough prior knowledge to comprehend and enjoy this book. An added bonus is that some students who love fashion or art may discover they have a newly sparked interest in history!

Content Areas: World History and Art

Universal Themes / Generalizations* 

  • Change (e.g., Change can be revolutionary or evolutionary. Change generates change.)
  • Power (e.g., Power is always present in some form. Power is the ability to influence.)
  • Community (e.g., Community follows patterns of growth and change. When one community comes in contact with anther community, change may occur.)

* from the work of Sandra Kaplan and California Association for the Gifted (CAG)

Teaching Suggestions:

  • Universal themes such as change, power, or community can guide students as they read. For example, students can cite multiple pieces of evidence to prove that “Change can be revolutionary or evolutionary.”
  • Ask students to use context clues to ascertain the meaning of unusual words, such as shogun in a section on samurai warriors, or courtier in a section on Europe from 1530 to 1630.
  • Discuss how the visual elements add to the text. How does looking carefully at the image support comprehension of the print text? What can readers ascertain from the visuals alone? How do the print elements add to that understanding?
  • After reading a section about a particular time period, have students write narratives from the point of view of a person living in that time. Ask them to include details from both the print and visual elements of the text.
  • Plan a “Mirror of History” dress-up day as a class or as a school. Challenge students to have conversations “in the character” of their historical eras. Try using “hot seat,” a strategy where one student sits in front of the class and answers student-created questions, all the time staying “in character.”


Common Core State Standards: Literacy in History / Social Studies (Grades 6 – 8)

Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.

Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary specific to domains related to history/social studies.

Integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, or maps) with other information in print and digital texts.

By the end of grade 8, read and comprehend history/social studies texts in the grades 6-8 text complexity band independently and proficiently.

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