Or can we? If you are like me, you spend a lot of time thinking about sewing even when you aren’t actively engaged in the process. And how fortunate, for those of us who also enjoy a good read, to find a novel which speaks the language of couture fashion sewing.
The Pink Suit, by Nicole Mary Kelby, was published in April of 2014, so it is not a particularly new book – it took me a while to decide to read it. I knew it was about the iconic “Chanel” suit which Jackie Kennedy wore the day her husband was assassinated in November of 1963. Although I am truly a fan of historical fiction, for some reason I had my doubts about the supposed story line of this book. Could an author really convey the emotional and professional commitment that a “dressmaker to the Famous” would have to have? Well, yes. I finally succumbed to reading this novel and I am so happy I did. This is a wonderful story, on three important levels – as a narrative story, as a lesson in fashion history from a very specific period of the 1960s, and as an appreciation of couture sewing.
The heroine of the story is Kate, an Irish immigrant dressmaker who works for the prestigious Chez Ninon boutique in New York City. Extremely skilled at couture sewing, Kate is always responsible for the creation of the fashions which First Lady Jackie Kennedy orders. Although Mrs. Kennedy’s tastes gravitate towards French style, she is savvy enough to realize that her clothes must be American made. So it is that Chez Ninon and Kate endeavor to provide her with the finest French styles, American made. As talented a dressmaker that Kate is, she balances between two worlds – that of the rich, famous, and beautifully dressed – and that of the “working class.” We do not find out until close to the end of the novel that Kate is exactly the same age as Mrs. Kennedy, which, for me, emphasized this dichotomy. (There is a parallel love story, in which Kate finally marries Patrick, who has a butcher shop business in Manhattan.) However, even though Kate is part of the “working class,” this does not mean that she does not want to dress as beautifully as those for whom she sews. I do not want to give away more of the narrative, but there is a wonderful scene where Kate is dressed in a couture suit and finds herself in the Carlyle Hotel where she deftly opines to herself “A woman in a beautiful suit can go anywhere.”
As a lesson in fashion history, The Pink Suit is beautifully composed. I learned things I never knew – such as Coco Chanel allowing line-by-line “copies” of her jackets and suits under certain circumstances. The pink boucle, the trim and the buttons for the First Lady’s suit were actually supplied by Chanel herself to Chez Ninon – at a hefty price, of course. Although Oleg Cassini was the “official” fashion designer to the White House, Mrs. Kennedy obviously had the ultimate say over what she wanted to wear – and what she wanted to have made for herself. There are hints in the book at the professional snobbery and envy, which certainly circled around some of her decisions. The inner workings of Chez Ninon are described with great detail, with especial emphasis placed on the two sisters who were the owners and “manipulators” of French fashion, done American style. (I was certainly thrilled to see a Chez Ninon gown in the Exhibit at Drexel University which I attended a few weeks ago. Although from a later period of time – and certainly not my favorite – simply the inclusion of such a gown speaks to the importance of this fashion boutique in the history of dress:)
One of the more charming aspects of the novel is the inclusion of a “fashion” quote at the beginning of each chapter. For example:
From Diana Vreeland: “A new dress doesn’t get you anywhere; it’s the life you’re living in the dress, & the sort of life you had lived before, & what you will do in it later.”
From Karl Lagerfeld: “Fashion is a language that creates itself in clothes to interpret reality.”
From Oleg Cassini: “To be well dressed is a little like being in love.”
From Yves Saint Laurent: “Over the years I have learned that what is important in a dress is the woman who is wearing it.”
From Coco Chanel: “Adornment, what a science! Beauty, what a weapon! Modesty, what elegance!”
Finally, I cannot give the author of this novel enough credit for her understanding and interpretation of the thrill of couture sewing and appreciation of beautiful fabrics. One can feel the stress that Kate experiences when she is working on her “assignments” – the tremendous time involved in intricate, custom sewing, the dedication to excellence she feels for each piece. And when beautiful fabrics come into the boutique, the reader can almost feel the luxurious hand of each one, see the perfect color and imagine the beauty of it made up into an exquisite dress. There is one scene where Kate is given a piece of the Linton Tweeds “Chanel” pink boucle – and I could fully feel her overpowering emotion at receiving such a gift.
This book has actually been featured in Threads Magazine’s “Great Gifts” feature in the current January 2016 issue:
So – I suggest that if you have not already read this book, you do so. Give yourself a gift, or put it on your list – along with some pink boucle!