FASHION VICTIM: OUR LOVE-HATE RELATIONSHIP WITH DRESSING, SHOPPING, AND THE COST OF STYLE, by Michelle Lee, Broadway Books, 294 pages, $24.95.

Michelle Lee is an experienced journalist who has gone inside the fashion industry to produce this fascinating look at the business and its huge effect on us. In "Fashion Victim," Lee asserts that our entire culture is "obsessed with fashion and style."

She has written an expose for sure — revealing intriguing information about the major designers, such as Donna Karan, Calvin Klein and Kenneth Cole. But she spends considerable time as well on the oddities: leg warmers, bumster trousers, Manolo Blahniks.

I didn't even know what Manolo Blahniks were until I read a novel in which the main female character was so obsessed with shoes that she would not wear anything but Blahniks. Lo and behold, Blahniks, known for extreme high heels, are the shoe for the fashion-conscious woman of today.

And so it goes with so many other articles of clothing that fall under what Lee calls "Speed Chic," or the "Crack Cocaine of Fashion" — the wheel of style that goes around so fast, no one can keep up with it.

Why are we so affected by fashion? Lee says it is because "our clothing is one of the few things we can readily change about ourselves. Our clothes are visible symbols of who we are and who we want to be." Lee says the average American spends $1,729 a year on clothing, resulting in more than $200 billion in annual sales for the industry. That means that no matter how often someone may bad-mouth fashion, we all live by it.

Lee traces the history of fashion, as well, noting that women of the "Upper Paleolithic era" may have worn caps, belts, skirts and bandeaux made of woven, linenlike cloth. She argues that they thought of clothing not only for its warmth but "as a means of communication — and often exclusion."

During the European Renaissance, says Lee, "Dress had evolved into a fully developed art form and status symbol. Restrictive corsets, stiff fabrics and high heels painted an accurate picture of their wearer: he or she clearly didn't work . . . and didn't have to work. By the late 19th century, ready-to-wear had begun to take the place of tailor-made clothing and removed many boundaries between the classes — what some call the "democratization of fashion."

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Today, fashion still indicates "rich/poor, liberal/conservative, hip/unhip" in many different ways. Lee's "Ten Commandments" for fashion victims is frighteningly on-target: "Thou Shalt Believe Submissively in the Fashion Label's Reach"; "Thou Shalt Be a Walking Billboard."

The billboard commandment shows how prescient this author really is. How is it that so many of us do not rebel at wearing T-shirts that blatantly advertise the designer all over our backs and/or our fronts? We actually buy an article of clothing, then wear it around so everyone will know the designer we allegedly prefer. The designer has not only tricked us into buying the clothing but into advertising it — and he does it without spending one more dime for marketing.

Lee has produced a book that has the ring of truth, and she covers every imaginable detail of the fashion world. Something that gives you pause. See how insidiously the fashion world is connected with those of celebrities and big business?


E-MAIL: dennis@desnews.com