By Clarissa Cruz
Updated November 19, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

When the worlds of fashion and literature collide, the result isn’t always absolutely fabulous. For every clever, adorably packaged style guide, for every thoughtful examination of the clothing industry, for every stunningly photographed picture book, there’s a crowded catwalk of glossy knockoffs that are pretty to look at but end up as frivolous (and forgettable) as last season’s mohair shrugs.

When publishers get it right, however, fashion tomes can dazzle both the mind and the eye. And this season’s collection has more than a few signature pieces. For just the right mixture of practical style advice and fizzy elan, pick up Swell: A Girl’s Guide to the Good Life (Warner, $23.95) by designer Cynthia Rowley and New York Times fashion scribe Ilene Rosenzweig. The cute little pinstriped primer covers everything from the importance of a sexy shoe to selecting the proper caviar, interspersing amusing tips (”If your friend in the ladies’ room wants to know if her black leather pants are too tight and, indeed, her ass looks like an oil spill, this is no time for the truth”) with helpful guidelines on how to live life with flair. Not quite as broad but certainly indispensable is former Glamour fashion director Kimberly Bonnell’s detailed, dress-for-every occasion handbook What to Wear (St. Martin’s Griffin, $12.95).

In a business not exactly known for substance, several veteran fashion journalists have attempted to make sense of the frenzied froth. The most charming of these is Holly Brubach’s A Dedicated Follower of Fashion (Phaidon, $29.95), a collection of insightful essays by the former New York Times Magazine style editor (now a consultant to the design house Prada). Dedicated’s strongest asset is Brubach’s ability to express her love for fashion—without hesitating to call the industry on its foibles. In ”The Eye of the Beholder” (originally published in The New Yorker in 1991) she gracefully expands a profile of unconventional supermodel Kristen McMenamy into a commentary on the way appearances still divide women. Other notable overviews include Dodie Goes Shopping (St. Martin’s, $19.95) by Vogue editor Dodie Kazanjian (though you must be willing to endure such snooty observations as ”red lipstick, like the poor, is always with us” and irksome references to her upbringing in Newport, R.I.).

Highbrow ruminations aside, fashion at its most visceral is unquestionably visual. No one understands this better than photographic bad boy David LaChapelle, whose provocative poses of models, celebrities, and assorted glitterati have become indelible pop-culture images. Though the shots in his latest photo collection, Hotel LaChapelle (Bulfinch, $60), will be familiar to any self-respecting, magazine-addicted fashionista — a nude Naomi Campbell frolicking in milk and an eyeshadowed, platinum-wigged Mark Wahlberg among them — LaChapelle’s envelope-shoving aesthetic is very much on display. Not as scandalous (but no less entertaining) are Frank DeCaro’s Unmistakably Mackie (Universe, $45), about the man who produced some of the most glamorous — some would say garish (Cher’s 1985 Oscar dress) — designs of the ’70s and ’80s, and fashion photog Mario Testino’s runway show chronicle Front Row Back Stage (Bulfinch, $60), an impressive gallery of models’ backstage shenanigans in all their frenetic, sashaying glory.

Which brings to mind the credo that artists should bear in mind if they want their stylebooks to be remembered for more than a season: Honey, you better work. Swell: A- Wear: B Follower: A Dodie: B- LaChapelle: A- Mackie: B Front Row: B+