The Look

Three Books Take on the Elements of Style

By Suzanne D'Amato
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 23, 2007

Some women awake to a closet full of crisp gabardine suits. Their handbags are tasteful, their shoes well-shined. Perhaps you are one of these women; I am not. My boots are scuffed, my dresser drawers a tangle of socks and belts. And so any book that promises a more winsome wardrobe or a better-organized closet is of interest to me.

The latest passel of fashion advice titles promises quite a bit. Some books live up to the hype, while others contain more hot air than one of last year's bubble skirts. Here, three recent releases of note:

The Little Black Book of Style

By Nina Garcia, Collins, $17.95

You'd expect any book by a "Project Runway" judge to serve up some good dish. Is Tim Gunn that frighteningly articulate in person? Is Heidi Klum that frightening? Well, Nina Garcia's lips are sealed on matters relating to the show -- and that's a shame, because what the Elle magazine fashion director presents instead is the kind of style advice anyone older than 12 has heard before. Among the revelations: Every woman should own a white shirt and a little black dress. Good shoes are important. Style is about clothes, yes, but also "confidence" and "mystery." Um, okay.

When Garcia tries to go high(er)-concept, the results can be head-scratching, as when she praises women who "maintain an aura of eternal style." Huh? Later, Garcia writes that John Galliano's hobo-chic look "was inspired by the homeless people he saw lining the Seine when he was jogging." Statements like these are why the rest of the world hates fashion people; the industry can seem straight out of "Zoolander," with everyone preening and posing, frontal lobes packed full of cotton candy.

The book's saving grace is its lovely illustrations. The work of Ruben Toledo, they're as inspired as Garcia's writing is prosaic. The combination could be like adding a Prada belt to a Wal-Mart frock, but it isn't. Toledo and Garcia are one high-low mix that just doesn't match.

The Little Dictionary of Fashion

By Christian Dior, Abrams, $19.95

Christian Dior abhors women who wear high heels with slacks. To him, the color purple is a hue "full of dangers." As for whether a woman should wear a hat? It's nothing less than "the most pressing problem of this time."

These statements make a bit more sense when you consider that "this time" was 1954, when Dior's little dictionary was originally published. While it's tempting to view this reissue as merely a blast from fashion's past, much of what the designer says feels surprisingly contemporary. (This places his book in sharp contrast with designer Anne Fogarty's "Wife Dressing," another 1950s advice tome slated to be reissued early next year. The retro read unapologetically focuses on dressing for a happy marriage.)

Dior may have a flair for the dramatic, but most of his missives are about practical ways to add style to everyday life. The book is organized alphabetically; between "Accent" and "Zest," you'll find tips on which colors will flatter your coloring and ways to look chic without spending too much money, ideas that are staples of modern-day advice books. The few entries that feel antiquated are still great fun to read. I am proud to report that I now know the difference between a day frock and an afternoon frock -- and yes, there is a difference.

Style A to Zoe

By Rachel Zoe with Rose Apodaca, Grand Central, $24.99

Hollywood stylist Rachel Zoe pens an A to Z survey of quite a different stripe -- zebra, perhaps? Zoe made her name dressing tabloid fixtures such as Nicole Richie, Mischa Barton and Lindsay Lohan. If you aspire to look like these women, you will find this guide indispensable. If you do not, you might have a good time flipping through it anyway; the book is a narcissistic gem, packed full of photos. Zoe with celebrities, Zoe with fashion designers, Zoe solo. Plus illustrations.

Her premise is that life should be glamorous, and so her list of inexpensive "essentials" includes spiky heels and a faux fur shrug. But this is not merely a guide to dressing; it's a guide to life. Witness the quasi-inspirational sayings peppered throughout: "Dreaming is real," reads one. Perhaps Zoe has spent too much time in that California sunshine?

Still, the author's style is definitely her own, and highly influential at that. Sequined berets and serpent bracelets will never be part of my personal fashion vocabulary, but I admire Zoe for going there. Bad taste is better than no taste -- or so they say.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company