Books: What the world's been waiting for

Annalisa Barbieri tries fashion books for size and is delighted with the definitive paean to nylon
One good thing about the end of a century, let alone one that marks a new millennium, is the books that arrive, glorious backward-looking books full of interesting facts and references that enable us to place sartorial trends in context. We always had a sneaking suspicion, for example, that the 1980s wasn't the first decade to make wearing black trendy, but were never entirely sure which was.

Although the book that helps us with this question, Black in Fashion by Valerie Mendes (V&A pounds 35), isn't a summary of the century, it does dig thoroughly into the history of the colour black, and accompanies the V&A exhibition of the same name. The introduction is excellent and demonstrates how well Mendes, who is chief curator of Textiles and Dress at the V&A, knows her subject. The story of black is retold in an easy, confident way that makes interesting little facts and figures slide with a delicious ease from the page into the reader's mind.

The introduction makes it clear that, far from being an invention of the 1980s, black has been a fashion constant for the past 500 years. Apparently, the first person to make it modish was Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy (a colour which, incidentally, may be the new black next season): "He made deliberate and effective appearances clad from head to toe in stylish black." But it wasn't really until the synthetic dyes came into being (in the 1850s) that black clothes really started taking off; before this the natural-based dyes and fixers that were used would turn fabric black but also destroy it. A real case of fashion eating itself.

After the introduction comes a detailed explanation of how the black dress in particular has evolved. Each innovative designer is given two pages. One shows a dress of their design, photographed spotlit against black - which shows more detail than one would think - while the facing page presents a line drawing of the dress, zooms in on details or has a portrait of the designer in question. This is all pulled together by 300-word biographical essays on both the dress and the designer, again handled beautifully. Vionnet, Poiret, Fortuny, Chanel, Armani, Dior, all are here. There is also a useful index at the back, an obvious facility you may think, but one which a surprising number of fashion books lack.

It must have been a busy year for Mendes because she has also co-written 20th Century Fashion (Thames and Hudson pounds 8.95)with Amy de la Haye, former curator of Twentieth Century Dress at the V&A. This is more of a chunky bedtime read. Each decade gets a chapter instructing or reminding the reader what influenced fashion at the time: whether a designer's collection or an ad campaign was particularly ground-breaking, what social /political issues affected the world, and therefore our mode of dress. This makes the retrieval of specific facts (despite, once again, a very good index) difficult, but then this book is not setting itself up to be an encyclopedia. If you can be bothered to sit down and read it, and not just dip in and out, this book can make you a bit of an expert on the fashions of the last 100 years.

Thames and Hudson have not been so fortunate with A Century of Fashion (pounds 19.95) by Francois Baudot. The problem with this book lies entirely in that it is translated (by Jane Brenton) from the French. The translation seems to make the book lack confidence and conviction, rather like when Eurovision entrants sing a cover of an English song but don't pronounce the ends of the words. It left me frustrated and I found myself re-ordering the sentences to make them more fluid.

Nevertheless, if you are particularly into fashion it is a worthy book to have in your collection. It is not divided strictly into decades so much as landmarks (which are also sometimes decades). So we get "The Belle Epoque", "Between the Wars", "The Sixties" and "Street Fashion", for example. Within these Baudot gives us skimpy, but useful, biographies of the designers that were spawned during those years, a historical review which covers social and political issues and menswear, which is so often forgotten in fashion reference books. The pictures are also much glossier than those in 20th Century Fashion, with some lovely examples from modern-day snap- geniuses such as Paolo Roversi and Javier Vallhonrat. But don't expect a coffee-table sized book - this is more of the toasted sandwich and cup of tea dimensions.

The last in my batch is surely destined to become one of my favourite fashion books of all time. I have been waiting years for someone to write an informative, definitive, yet fun-to-read book on nylon. I thought I was the only person in the world who found synthetic fibres interesting. Nylon, The Manmade Fashion Revolution by Susannah Handley (Bloomsbury pounds 20) is superb and deserves to be a bestseller, instead of the endless ropey biographies on vapid celebrities that have barely lived. Beautifully put together, it gives us a fascinating insight into this fibre, its provenance and growth decade by decade.

I was disappointed to learn that the name nylon came not from an amalgam of New York and London, which was one of the rumours that had always persisted (as the chemists that created it worked on both sides of the pond) but that it was a bastardisation of "no run" (even though it did run). But then I was fascinated to learn that Du Pont, the company that created nylon, used to produce "both bombs and lingerie fibres".

The picture research is second to none. Especially enjoyable are the advertisements pulled from the archives. These show that, right up until the Seventies, when it became a fibre non grata, nylon was heavily promoted in advertising. "From the tips of her heels to the curve of her new hat ... the modern woman is more and more a product of the plastics laboratory" ran one encomium.

It was not until the 1990s that nylon was allowed back in, when Du Pont "reinvented" it with the launch of Tactel - nylon with different properties - a name they took care to trademark this time (which they failed to do with nylon) and which had none of the tacky, sweaty associations that its predecessor did. This is a brilliant, brilliant book that is more a comment on this century than it ever had any intention of being.