Review: Jen Croll's Bad Girls of Fashion

People need fashion. The ones who recognize the true potential of fashion are those most in need of revolution. Explaining this concept to a tween demographic, as Jennifer Croll does in her latest book, Bad Girls of Fashion, is not as difficult as one might expect. No age group is more acquainted with the transformative, transgressive potential of style than the early middle school set. For her readers, Croll elevates youthful fashion experiments with historical context and gives serious consideration to the value of dressing up.

In the books introduction, Croll writes, “fashion is anything but frivolous.” Despite her youngish audience, Croll makes sure her treatment of the subject is similarly free from frivolity. Early on, she identifies the role of fashion in the history of feminism. “In the past, women often faced very severe limitations on the careers they could pursue and the kind of life they could live: sometimes dressing up was the only way they could really express themselves,” she writes. The book is littered with examples of women whose clothing choices were synonymous with physical and intellectual freedom: Marie Antoinette wearing men’s riding pants or George Sand cross dressing in order to move freely in the male dominated sphere of Parisian society. Bad Girls of Fashion also touches on topics like natural hair, fashion conglomerates, segregation, and androgyny, but in a pert, digestible way entirely appropriate to the intended reader. However, making these topics digestible is not the same as glossing over them. This book is a primer for young readers to look at the ideological significance of actions and choices that slip under the radar.  

Structurally, the book has a few hiccups. The decision to divide the book into ten portraits of various “bad girls,” and then insert another three profiles into these chapters seriously unsettles the reading experience. Simply giving each woman her own chapter would have saved a great deal of confusion. As it stands, the reader is half way through a profile on, say, Cleopatra, only to turn the page and find themselves reading about Queen Elizabeth the First. A few pages later, back to Cleopatra. On a second look, the odd groupings share thematic touch points and even reference each other, but the layout remains bumpy.

Ada Buchholc’s bold, dynamic illustrations are a perfect introduction to the style and legacy of the women Croll writes about. The gorgeous designs bring fashion illustration to mind, and the whole thing has the look of a mock-up or a mood board. It is visually fun and irreverent enough to suit the audience, without being garish or overwhelming the text.

Teenagers, especially teenage girls, still face a widely held belief that fashion is flippant. How often do you see casual mocking of teens who flock to the mall, parodies of their shrill voices or branding of their self-styling as vanity? In a bright, brief package, Croll takes a stand. The world is seriously lacking when it comes to taking young peoples’ interest in fashion seriously, and this lovely book does its part to redress the balance.