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February 10, 2015

In WHY’D THEY WEAR THAT, teens can learn about different fashion trends through the centuries. Why did people ever wear hoop skirts, rams-horned headdresses and shirts made of hair? Find out in this humorous and informative book.

Below we talk to author Sarah Albee about her inspiration for writing about historical fashion, her favorite article of clothing and the most interesting thing she learned about clothes during her research. What inspired you to write WHY'D THEY WEAR THAT?

Sarah Albee: I’ve always been fascinated by what people wore in bygone eras, and wanted to know the underlying story. How did a guy in a suit of armor go to the bathroom? Why did people swaddle their babies so tightly they resembled violin cases? How did a woman in an enormous crinoline petticoat fit through a doorway, or sit down, for that matter? Why were the Victorians so obsessed with the color green, even when they knew that it was dyed with arsenic and extremely poisonous to the wearer? The book is not so much a history of fashion --- there are lots of wonderful books by fashion historians that are much more comprehensive than this one--- but more, history through the lens of what people wore, and why. It’s about how people figured out how to make linen, and tan leather, and how the conquest of North America had a lot to do with wanting beavers to make hats, and why women laced themselves into shape-shifting corsets, and trying to understand foot binding in China, and how women’s fashions changed during World War I, when women were finally able to emerge from the home and take on jobs traditionally done by men. Hemlines rose from ground level, and trousers for women began to appear. I just find it all so fascinating, and I wanted to share the stories I learned.

TRC: WHY'D THEY WEAR THAT is all about the history of fashion. Do you have a favorite article of clothing? How about one that made sense at the time but you now find embarrassing?

SA: I have a pair of patent-leather black boots that I love because they reach my knee (I’m 5’10 with freakishly long legs), and they have a little heel like a sixties go-go boot. They make me feel really stylish when I have them on.

Embarrassing? Well, I was a teenager in the seventies. Let’s just say that whole decade was something of a fashion fail. I particularly recall being so proud of my hairstyle circa 1978—I had it cut at an angle from my bangs down to just above the shoulders, parted it in the middle, and --- here was the awesome part—I used a curling iron to flip the ends up. It was like I was wearing two sausage rolls next to my face. I thought I looked amazing.

One major way the book has changed the way I see fashions is that I buy a lot fewer clothes than I used to, but I buy the best quality I can. I also look carefully at labels to see what kind of fabric it is, and where it was made. I try hard not to buy from big companies with poor ethical treatment of their garment workers, usually in foreign countries, and I’ve done research into designers and manufacturers that try to treat their workers better. Inexpensive, poor quality clothing is terrible for everyone --- the economy, the environment, and the garment workers.

TRC: If you could wear any of the clothes featured in WHY'D THEY WEAR THAT, what would you choose and why?

SA: Wow, cool question. The fact is, some of the most beautiful fashions in history were also some of the most uncomfortable. I love the late-14th-century, close-fitting dresses called houppelandes (which were close-fitting because your servant sewed you into your dress each day) with the outrageous rams-horn headdresses, but I’m guessing they weren’t terribly comfy to wear --- and I know they didn’t launder well. And the hobble skirts of the early twentieth century are so lovely, but trying to do any walking must have been awful --- it must have felt as though your shoelaces were tied together. I think I’d have to say the late 20s --- I love the bobbed hair and cloche hats, the swingy dresses, and the shoes . . . *sigh*. Such lovely shoes.

TRC: What was the most interesting thing that you learned when researching for WHY'D THEY WEAR THAT?

SA: Oh, so many things! Hard to narrow it down to one --- but I’ll pick 17th century Venice. From medieval times, during Carnival (the forty-day party time just before Lent) people had gone around wearing masks, but as time went on, Venetians started wearing masks more and more and more, until for much of the year people went outside with masks on. Church spies were everywhere, listening for heretical talk, and they could disguise themselves with masks --- but so could everyone else. Men, women and children wore them. Masks could disguise more than just your identity --- also your social class, your occupation, even your gender, if you wore a big cloak. Venice was the party city of Europe. Society ladies could hang out in seedy bars, and priests could hang out, well, in places they shouldn’t. All bets were off. Then Napoleon showed up in the late 1700s and ruined everything.

TRC: You're a children's book author now, but you've had a lot of interesting jobs over your lifetime, including working at the television company that produces “Sesame Street” and as a laboratory pigeon-caretaker! What was your favorite job and why?

SA: Working at Sesame Street was probably my favorite job. I was so lucky to land a job there soon out of college. I loved the humor, the music, the format of the show and I got to travel a ton. And just being surrounded by incredibly creative people every day was so awesome. It’s where I realized I wanted to spend my life writing for kids --- and where I got my first books published.

TRC: How much do you draw upon your life experiences when writing? 

SA: I think I have a mindset that is suited to writing funny, wacky nonfiction. I’m a curious person and I ask “why?” a lot. As evidenced by the title of the book!

TRC: What were your favorite books to read as a teen?

SA: I was a pretty nerdy teenager. I managed to hang in the outer fringe of the popular group in high school by dint of being a good athlete (I was captain of my basketball and track teams), but I spent a lot of Saturday nights at home, reading. When I was a teenager, the YA genre didn’t really exist, or not the way it does today. I read lots of Charles Dickens, and mysteries, like Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes, and Penguin classics that were probably way over my head. How I wish Harry Potter had existed back then. I would have read the series 17 times, I’m sure.

TRC: Do you have any advice for teens who want to be professional writers?

SA: Read a lot. If you love a book, read it again, look at it closely and try to figure out why you find the writing so powerful, or beautiful or funny. Writing is like any other skill --- you can’t stop after one try. You have to revise. You have to write over and over in order to get better. To shoot a 15-foot jump shot with accuracy, you have to take 10,000 practice shots. To be able to play Chopin, you have to have put in 10,000 hours of scales and musical exercises. To write well, you have to write a lot --- and rewrite a lot.

TRC: Are you working a book project now? If so, what can you tell us about it?

SA: I have a new contract for a book due out in 2017. The subject is POISON in history. I’m really excited about it!