Because We Can’t Spend Every Waking Hour Sewing . . .

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 Pink Suit - book cover

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.”

I love that the back cover of the book shows a hat and gloves - two essential ingredients to being well dressed in the early 1960s.

I love that the back cover of the book shows a hat and gloves – two essential ingredients to being well dressed in the early 1960s.

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:)

Drexel - red Chez Ninon dress

How I would love to see the inside of this 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:

The Pink Suit - Threads

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!

22 Comments

Filed under Book reviews, Coco Chanel, Mid-Century style, Uncategorized

22 responses to “Because We Can’t Spend Every Waking Hour Sewing . . .

  1. Mery

    I appreciate your review and now I want to read it. Indeed a beautiful suit or dress opens many doors of opportunity.
    P. S. I’ll bet you got compliments on your gray dress.

  2. Andrea Birkan

    I loved this book! A great easy read. I couldn’t put it the book down.

  3. I will put this on my reading list. Thanks for the suggestion.

  4. Marianne

    Thanks for reminding me! I put it on my to-read list a year ago but never found a copy around here. Time to order abroad!

  5. What a lovely post, Karen! I’d also like to add that this book is a joy to listen to while sewingn 🙂

  6. Sheila Dusinberre

    Thanks for the book idea…I’ll order that soon. As for the 60’s dressing, my “Hay Day” was before that, in the 50’s. Believe it or not, I still have a drawer that holds some short white gloves and a hat box in the attic full of hats. I kept the ones that my Mother made me. In the late 50’s after college, I had a travelling job with Proctor and Gamble and we all wore the gloves and hats while on the job while interviewing women about various products. We also wore the 3″ heels (pumps) and my feet tell me NOT to try that today. I enjoy all that you write. Thanks again!

    • Although I grew up a bit later than you, I, too, have the short white sueded cotton. I loved the 3″ heels in black patent, white matte leather, leather with tweed inset across the top, orange patent!!, with matching bag! Remember the seamed-stockings? “Are my seams straight?” !!!!

    • The ’50s was a elegant time for fashion! I was a little girl then, but I remember my mother with the hats and gloves and heels. Very chic – and I am sure you were, too!

  7. Ahhh…Coco. Do you have a photo of the portable sewing kit Chanel used when she traveled. I saw a ‘hollywood’ image in one of the movies made for Coco recently but can’t remember which movie it was in. Also, I would love a pattern of her original bag. Any ideas??? Thanks, Annie

  8. For me, the gloves were elbow length with little buttons – worn for proms, of course, in the late 60s. I’ve heard other good reports about this book, it is on my list!

    • Remember the feeling of pulling on those elbow length gloves. Mine had the little pearl coated buttons under the wrist, 3 I think and you could unbutton them, take off the glove at the hand and fold it back so you could still wear the gloves and eat, etc without removing them. And the feel (emotional, of luxury) of pulling them on. I still probably have some in my ‘glove cache.’ Thank you for responding!!

  9. What a wonderful review Karen!

    I would never imagine that the pink suit Mrs. Kennedy wore that tragic day was a knock off of the Chanel design.
    You describe the material as boucle is that wool?

    Perhaps you may like The Time in Between by Maria Duenas, I read it and I enjoyed it.

    Always looking forward to reading your posts.

    • Boucle is the fabric of choice for the Chanel-type French jackets. It is of a “loopy” nature, usually a loose weave, and it can have wool in it but it doesn’t have to. It is perfect for concealing the quilting lines that are a hallmark of this type of jacket. Thanks for the kind words about my review!

  10. Just finished “The Pink Suit” and found it an entertaining read. I loved the details about the actual sewing too! Thanks for sharing the title with us.

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