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Book Reviews

Bad Girls of Fashion: Style Rebels From Cleopatra to Lady Gaga

by Jennifer Croll; Ada Buchholc (illus.)

There comes a point in every kid’s life when the freedom of wearing clothes that express how they feel in the moment – whether it be sparkly butterfly wings, a cowboy hat, or mismatched socks – gives way to the pressure of wanting to look like everyone else in their peer group. Clothes are among the key signifiers of class and culture, and for preteens that reality is often reflected in the uniformity of popular mall fashions and their idols-of-the-moment, currently led by celebrities named Kylie.

JulyAug-BfYP_BadGirlsofFashion_CoverThank God for books like Jennifer Croll’s Bad Girls of Fashion: Style Rebels from Cleopatra to Lady Gaga, in which Croll profiles 43 women who have proven that – popular fashion be damned – clothes are important and, at times, even revolutionary. Croll is a Vancouver writer and editor whose first book, Fashion That Changed the World, examined historical moments in style for adult readers. In this book for a younger audience, she broadly defines “bad girls” as women who dress to “shake things up” – whether to change opinions, gain personal power, or express individual creativity.

Bad Girls devotes chapters to 10 fashion renegades, including Cleopatra, deemed the “fashion leader”; Coco Chanel, the “modernizer”; Frida Kahlo, “artist”; and Lady Gaga, “freak.” Shorter profiles spotlight an eclectic group of women, including Black Panther activist Angela Davis, artist Cindy Sherman, designer Rei Kawakubo, and performers Björk and Nicki Minaj. Croll presents each woman’s contributions without judgment of their personal legacies, giving space to controversial characters such as Imelda Marcos – not exactly a positive role model – alongside tastemaking Vogue editor Anna Wintour and riot grrrl Kathleen Hanna. It’s a slightly jarring juxtaposition, but it fits within a definition of bad girls as those willing to take risks to get exactly what they want.

There are also straightforward mentions of sexual power in reference to stars such as Rihanna, Marlene Dietrich, and Marilyn Monroe, but it would be impossible to discuss the influence of their styles on pop culture without the topic coming up. This isn’t a bad thing: in a world where young women are bombarded with sexualized, often exploitative imagery, the book’s realistic acknowledgement of the connection between sex and fashion could potentially be used to launch a broader, healthy conversation on the topic.

While society now openly accepts that organic, locally grown food is better for the environment and our health, we’ve been slower to accept the same philosophy when it comes to what we wear. Despite the horrific factory fires in Bangladesh, fast fashion still reigns, with much of it targeted at teenagers making their first independent clothing purchases.

The profiles are accompanied by plenty of photographs and fun, original illustrations by Polish artist Ada Buchholc, whose choice of bright colours, strong lines, and whimsical scenarios recalls Patrick Nagel’s 1980s album cover art for Duran Duran, pop art, and vintage movie posters. Buchholc’s acid colour palette creates a joyful, almost tongue-in-cheek mood, and gives the book its scrapbook feel.

Flashy clothes and colours aside, there is also a serious undercurrent to the book. Beyond introducing young readers to the political activism of Pussy Riot and equality movements such as riot grrrl and black power, Bad Girls demonstrates that style does not require a conventional beauty or body type – or a full wallet. It might also give added courage to those who are already making unconventional style choices. After all, long before she became an internationally known fashion icon, publisher, and actor, Tavi Gevinson (also profiled) was just a quirky kid with a penchant for vintage clothing and purple hair dye.