THE MEANING OF SUNGLASSES AND A GUIDE TO ALMOST ALL THINGS FASHIONABLE, by Hadley Freeman, Viking, 234 pages, $24.95.

Here is both a sensible and funny guide to women's fashion, written by a clever young British writer, a deputy fashion editor of The Guardian in London. She's also a contributing writer to the British Vogue.

She manages to capture both the "inside" look at fashion as seen by designers and the exasperating feeling many women have over what the designers send out for women to buy. She is more optimistic than most fashion writers, but when she thinks a design is silly, she speaks with candor.

Her most important theme is that "fashion is more than ever for the women themselves, not the men who look at them." She also notes that an increasing number of designers are women. "Never before have so many good clothes been so readily available so cheaply," she writes, "and never before have so many women been in the position to buy them with their own money."

Freeman asserts that today "a woman can buy a fantastically smart work suit" that cheers her up. That is not something to criticize, she says, especially if a woman can get "a little smile of pleasure" at what she buys instead of complaining about her choices.

It's Freeman's contention that "fashion should be about making people feel good about themselves: confident, attractive, individual."

She recalls that fashions of the past often had "some kind of wearisome ulterior motive — shoulder pads in the '80s to make one look more butch in the workplace, wasp waists in the '50s to create a vision of the female form that pretty much rivals Barbie in its distance from reality."

Now, she thinks, women can buy "clothes that boys don't get but girls do."

She encourages women to always have faith in their own tastes: "All that matters is whether you like it or not."

Even though going after accessories, such as a handbag, is very popular today, Freeman warns about shying away from clothes and spending too much money on accessories. "It's like believing that any food you eat while standing up and cooking doesn't count."

Freeman's narrative is filled with quotable statements, such as, "Contrary to what your mother told you, an outfit's quota of tackiness has nothing to do with the height of a hem, the inches of a heel, or the tightness of a skirt. It has to do with the obviousness of its message."

She criticizes ankle boots as "pretty much up there with high-heeled sneakers in terms of silliness. They make you look like a member of the cloven hoof species, they are surprisingly hard to walk in owing to lack of — despite the name — ankle support, and they go with only about two pieces of clothing."

Freeman also attacks the use of Botox for cosmetic reasons, comparing it to "hard drugs" and predicting a woman who uses it will find herself "on a treadmill of injections, having to top yourself up with annoying frequency."

As for shoes, Freeman says, "A curvy woman trotting about with a smile in a pair of simple flats is a far more attractive sight than a twiglet limping miserably in stilettos."

This book is informative, light and amusing.


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