Text by ERIC WILSON
TWO FAVORITE TARGETS of Colin McDowell, the senior statesman of the fashion press, a former writer for The Sunday Times of London and an occasional critic of critics in his opinion column on the Business of Fashion blog, are people who do not know what they are talking about and people who know so much that no one else knows what they are talking about.
“As we all know, only academics can read other academics,” Mr. McDowell said recently. On the other hand, when encountering fashion students at various London colleges, he said, “I am a little appalled at how little young designers know.”
Seeking middle ground with his latest project, “The Anatomy of Fashion: Why We Dress the Way We Do” (to be published on Sept. 30 by Phaidon Press), Mr. McDowell, who has written more than 20 books, breaks fashion history down neatly by examining clothing as it relates to specific body parts. That is, the head, hips, torso, arms, genitals and so on. A chapter on wrists, for example, manages to include, in the space of two pages, references to Egyptian amulets, Queen Victoria, Gianni Agnelli, Swatch and Lance Armstrong’s rubber wristbands. Feet, bearing more burden, get eight pages.
Fashion has always been about the body: protecting it, flaunting it, enhancing it. So that is a good enough place to start explaining it. In Mr. McDowell’s book, you will discover details like the difference between bosom shapes of Edwardian matrons and flappers, the evolution of cotton and synthetic textiles, the appeal of bondage wear and even the derivation of corduroy measurements. There is also a particular focus on the increasingly exposed body through the centuries.
Looking at bathing attire alone, Mr. McDowell remarked that both men and women now wear swimsuits that are deliberately designed to attract sexual attention.
“What is important today, and for people of all ages, is asking ‘Do I look good?’ ” he said. “And what that normally means, is ‘Do I look sexy?’ I often think that if Queen Victoria were being driven through London today, she would faint every two seconds.”
A version of this article appears in print on August 22, 2013, on page E4 of the New York edition with the headline: The Body and Its Armor.