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My Mother’s Wedding Dress (thoughts)

September 21, 2010

Remember how much I enjoyed The Thoughtful Dresser? Well, I enjoyed My Mother’s Wedding Dress by Justine Picardie even more! I was searching for something else in my library’s catalogue when this popped up, and on a whim I put it on hold (this is the same way I found Deborah Blum, so it’s obviously a strategy I should pursue more often!). When I opened it up, it took about half a page for me to realise that this was a book for me, and I spent the whole book being delighted by one story after another. I suppose I’d call this an inter-linked essay collection (does that make sense? more cohesive than some essay collections I’ve read but more episodic than a memoir) on clothes and the people associated with them. It’s published by Bloomsbury USA, from which I’ve come to expect nonfiction that are smart as well as touching, a balance that can be difficult to pull off. But even though I finished this well over a month ago, I still think about it regularly, and I’m already rather longing to reread it.

Picardie worked as a journalist for British Vogue, so there are some stories of high fashion in here, but they’re profiles of the designers as people, rather than just their clothes, so even though I’m not an attentive follower of Fashion Week I still enjoyed those bits. Picardie has a way of capturing people that makes them, and especially their vulnerabilities, rise up from the page; I’ve never before been particularly concerned about Donatella Versace (the flashiness and over-the-top sexiness of Versace is about the polar opposite of my own clothing preferences) but Picardie made me want to keep her in my thoughts. These profiles are in the minority, though; most of the book is about how clothes relate to her life, and we learn quite a bit about her family, especially her sister, mother, and grandmother, which I found fascinating. One of the things I’ve discovered from my Women Unbound reading is that I’m acutely interested in the lives of everyday women, from all sorts of time periods, and the way that they made things work. Picardie’s mother emigrated to the UK from South Africa, which of course adds a new dimension of interest for me (can you tell by now anything international captures my attention?). One of my favourite stories was of how Picardie’s grandmother, a middle-class white South African, joined with other middle-class women to protest as the Apartheid laws were being enacted. Picardie doesn’t discover this until some random chance, as an adult, and she brings us along as she finds out more about these women and how they dressed as if in mourning to picket politicians. And Picardie’s stories of her sister; well, they moved me to laughter and tears and made me so grateful to have a sister of my own. I’ve since learned that she wrote a whole book about her relationship with her sister (If the Spirit Moves You) which I fully intend to read soon.

And then, there are bits about literary figures and clothes! I know a lot of you are Bronte fans (I confess, the only sister whose novels I enjoy is Anne, but I find their life fascinating anyway), so you might be hooked when I tell you that Picardie launches a bit of an investigation into Charlotte’s life, and especially her clothes, when she hears that family tradition has it that a little ring she inherited belonged to Charlotte herself. I enjoyed learning about Charlotte’s trousseau, and about the Bronte museum out on the Moors, and a little more about their story. In fact, I’m now contemplating reading more nonfiction about them! Usually, I avoid biographies of authors since I don’t necessarily want to know about the lives of my favorites (what if they had opinions or habits I find distasteful?), but since I’m not attached to Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre, I don’t think that will be a problem. I’m particularly interested in Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte now, since Picardie discusses it, and the questions of womanhood and feminity in Victorian London, in such a compelling way!

Since I read this during my no-obligations time, I didn’t copy out any of my favourite passages (I’d banned myself from doing anything too structured). This is a real shame, since the writing is one of the things I loved most about the book. (The other was how vividly people come to life.) And I can’t prove to you how adept Picardie is with prose! All I can say is that, as you know I’m particularly picky about the writing style of an author, and My Mother’s Wedding Dress appealed to me so much that I not only want to read Picardie’s other nonfiction (she has a biography of Coco Chanel coming out soon, as well as the aforementioned book about her sister), I also want to read her fiction! My new library doesn’t have her earlier novel, Wish I May, but it does have Daphne. And although I usually avoid any books that involve real historical figures (in this case, Daphne du Maurier), I plan on checking this out as soon as I get a library card. As a literary mystery, it should be perfect for my current R.I.P. mood, and more importantly I can’t wait to read more of Picardie’s lovely writing. (Why yes, if I had unlimited funds, I would immediately buy her entire backlist…when I’ve read a bit more of her, I have no doubt she’ll appear in my Assembling My Atheneum series.)

If you love good writing, vivid characterisation, heartfelt nonfiction, and a quiet, ‘British’ style, you owe it to yourself to try out some Justine Picardie. And if you love clothes as well as books, My Mother’s Wedding Dress should be at the top of your TBR list!

Do you have any books about clothes/style/fashion to recommend to me?

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30 Comments leave one →
  1. September 21, 2010 4:26 am

    What a lovely review – I hugely enjoyed this book – I think I read it when it came out. it’s not at all the same, but your request for suggestions put me in mind of Linda Grant’s The clothes on their backs – maybe it was the title, but this is a great novel that you might enjoy.

    • September 22, 2010 12:46 pm

      Oh, thanks for recommending the Grant novel! Since I enjoyed The Thoughtful Dresser, I’m definitely interested in giving her fiction a go. :)

  2. September 21, 2010 5:18 am

    I don’t believe I’ve ever read a book about clothes or fashion, but you are right, this sounds like a lot of fun! I’m glad you enjoyed it so much and I hope you enjoy your next book by her just as much :)

    • September 22, 2010 12:47 pm

      Thanks Amy! I lurve clothes and personal style type-stuff, but I find it difficult to find really good nonfiction on the subject.

  3. September 21, 2010 5:30 am

    I liked Madeleine St John’s The Women in Black, a novel about the saleswomen who work in the women’s clothing section of a department store in Sydney in the 1950s.

    • September 22, 2010 12:47 pm

      That sounds really neat, especially since I read The Ladies’ Paradise earlier this year! Thanks for telling me about it. :)

  4. September 21, 2010 5:38 am

    If you are interested in the life of the Bronte sisters, try to go to Haworth. Our visit there was the highlight of our travels through England. We stayed in a small hotel a short walk from the Bronte house/museum. It was late afternoon when we arrived so the house had closed for the day. We took the road up past the house to the moors above. Then the next morning we toured the house. They have the sofa on which Emily Bronte died. Haworth today is really two towns, the modern village in the valley by the railroad and the old weavers’ town on the hillside where the Bronte church and house are. The old streets on the hill are cobbles and very steep.The moors are higher yet, and you have to walk up.

    • September 21, 2010 5:39 am

      Apologies to all. I thought I was in a different post when I wrote this reminiscence about the Brontes.

      • September 22, 2010 12:47 pm

        No worries! I enjoyed hearing about your trip. :)

  5. September 21, 2010 5:46 am

    Not books but (unless you were the one who mentioned this movie in the first place) have you seen that documentary The September Issue? It’s all about putting together the, er, September issue of Vogue. I watched it a few weeks back and found it fascinating, and that’s without me having any serious interest in clothes and fashion. So I bet you’d like it even more! There were many pretty dresses!

    • September 22, 2010 12:48 pm

      I saw that available for free in OnDemand through Sundance: I hope it’s still available! :)

  6. September 21, 2010 5:47 am

    I adore references to historical clothing – for some reason, I’m not so into modern fashion, but put me back 200 years and it’s fascinating! This sounds pretty much amazing. I am a fan of all of the Brontes, so that’s just another draw.

    • September 22, 2010 12:49 pm

      I find men’s historical clothing fascinating, since in most times it was much ‘fancier’ than it is today!

  7. September 21, 2010 7:03 am

    The novel that immediately comes to mind is Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin; the way she describes fabrics and trim and dresses themselves is truly memorable. Beyond the fashion element, it’s similar, in some ways, to Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace.

    • September 22, 2010 12:49 pm

      I LOVED Alias Grace, so you’ve sold me on this one! Thanks. :)

  8. September 21, 2010 7:58 am

    Thanks for the review! This is going straight on my TBR! Sounds like a great book!

    • September 22, 2010 12:49 pm

      I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! :)

  9. September 21, 2010 8:40 am

    Sounds lovely. I’ll add it to my tbr list. Great post, Eva.

  10. September 21, 2010 9:27 am

    Ooh, a bio of Coco Chanel! I’ll be all over that one; thanks for the heads-up. Picardie sounds like a smart, engaging writer, and I share your fascination with clothing-related issues, historical and modern. Are you aware of shorpy.com? Excellent historical photography of everyday people.

    • September 22, 2010 12:51 pm

      I hadn’t come across shorpy.com before, but I love it: thanks! :) I’m excited about the Chanel bio too…such a fascinating woman. I enjoyed Coco Avant Chanel, but I’m sure they took liberties!

  11. September 21, 2010 10:44 am

    I don’t read a lot about fashion – if you saw my closet, you’d know I’m not lying – so I can’t recommend anything. I like beautiful writing but I’m not sure about a book of essays, so I’ll have to think about this one.

    • September 22, 2010 12:51 pm

      Do you enjoy memoirs? Because this is like an essay collection/memoir cross, so it might still work for you. :)

      Your closet comment cracked me up!

  12. September 22, 2010 8:08 am

    Wow, sounds like a winner, and something that’s right up my alley!

    • September 22, 2010 12:52 pm

      The writing is so good: I hope you like it!

  13. September 22, 2010 4:03 pm

    I’m excited about the Coco Chanel bio as well and YES to Slammerkin!

  14. gellhorn permalink
    September 26, 2010 8:08 am

    I recently picked up “The Thoughtful Dresser” based on your recommendation; I’ll have to add “My Mother’s Wedding Dress” to my reading list, as well.

    I have loved wearing and collecting vintage clothing since I was in high school, and I’ve long fantasized about opening a shop of my own, in part because I’d love to hear the stories behind the unique garments people bring in to sell. So I really enjoyed “Alligators, Old Mink & New Money: One Woman’s Adventures in Vintage Clothing” by Alison Houtte and Melissa Houtte. The book chronicles Allison Houtte’s experiences opening up a vintage shop in Brooklyn, and touches on the ways that clothing and style are linked to creativity, identity, relationships and our personal and collective histories.

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