Works of fiction which feature some aspect of sewing or fashion are often some of my favorite reading experiences. While I do not necessarily seek them out, if I hear of such a novel, and it’s reviews are positive, then I will add it to my reading queue (similar to my sewing queue!) And sometimes, there is a surprise sewing element in a novel – those are the bonuses.
The last three novels I have read, in quick succession, were all very different, but each one used sewing and/or fashion as foundational premises either for the plot or for character development. So, here are short reviews of each one, in the order in which I read them.
The first novel, Beneficence, by Meredith Hall, came to my attention by a review in The Wall Street Journal Weekend Edition back in the Fall. The subtle role sewing plays in this novel makes it one of those bonus books. Some of the words used to describe this novel, and rightly so, have been “haunting,” luminous,” and “exquisite.” It takes place in Maine (USA) and spans the years from the late 1940s to the early ‘60s. The story is about the Senter family, who owns a dairy farm, and the devastating tragedy which befalls the family of five. Early in the book, one gets the sense of impending doom. At this point, in no way did I have any inkling of the role sewing would have in the development of one of the main characters, Dodie, the daughter. The masterful writing – eerily beautiful, and very affecting – is of such quality that it was only after I had finished the book did I realize how her sewing helped to define Dodie. The sewing references even hint at the blessings ahead for her in the reader’s mind at book’s end. She is a mender, a creator, and a giver of things she has sewn. She is wise beyond her years. She is a character I will long remember. The book is a masterpiece.
One word of warning, however, is necessary for this book. Parts of it are very difficult emotionally to read. I cried a lot reading it, perhaps crying the most at the book’s end when grace and wisdom finally replace anguish for each of the Senters. If you are feeling in any way fragile right now, then plan to read this book at another, more secure time.
Feeling emotionally drained (but fulfilled) after reading Beneficence, I wanted something light-hearted and fun. And like a blessing, this book came to me as a Christmas gift from my daughter, Susanna.
The Women in Black, by Madeline St. John, is set in the early 1950s in Sydney, Australia. It follows four women (actually 3 women and one 16-year-old girl) who work at Goode’s Department Store in Fine Dresses and Model Dresses (Model Dresses being the most expensive.) The time of year is December, when cocktail and party dress buying is at a frenzy! Patty and Fay are in the fine dresses, Magda manages the Model Gowns, and Lisa is a temporary hire who helps out wherever she is needed. In many ways, however, it is Lisa’s story. Magda takes a loving interest in her, and when Lisa is exposed to the confectionary frocks in Model Gowns, she comes alive. She particularly has her eye on one dress, which is called “Lisette.” And when she finally has the opportunity to try the dress on, this is what transpires:
“Lisette was, of course, everything which could have been dreamed; like all the great works of the French couture, it was designed to look beautiful not simply as a thing in itself, but as the clothing of a female form. It took on then the property of vitality and movement, that is, of rhythm: it became finally incarnate. Lisa stood, overwhelmed, staring into the great cheval glass. . . . The frock changed her absolutely; the revelation which had come upon her when she had first been shown the Model gowns was now complete.”
What a fun book, written by someone (sadly now deceased) who understood the transformative power of dress and dresses. Treat yourself and read this book!
Just the title of the third book I am sharing is intriquing enough to catch your attention.
Based loosely on a true story, but definitely a work of fiction, The French Model, by Alexandra Joel, is the story of a stunningly beautiful young Australian woman who makes her way to Paris and becomes a model in Christian Dior’s House in post-war France. In leaving Australia, she is escaping not only from an unhappy marriage, but also from revelations about her past which make her question her identity and all those she has ever loved. This book has it all: mystery, espionage, love, fashion, friendship, sacrifice, sex, “very important person” sightings, political intrigue, history, and courage – all in a complex story line which will keep you on the edge of your seat. The writing is lovely and descriptive, the main characters endearing. Some of the story is a bit contrived – or unbelievable – but I was generally able to overlook those parts to enjoy the larger storyline. And I loved the emphasis on the workings of the House of Christian Dior. Anyone who loves vintage fashion – or historical fiction set at the end of World War II – should find escaping into this story a happy place to be.
One final observation about these three books. The dust jackets are works of art. Not unlike a perfectly fitted and flattering dress, each one is so perfectly evocative of what lies within, capturing the very essence of the books they adorn. As I look again and again at each one, it takes me back to those stories, those places and those indelible characters which gave me so much reading pleasure.
“A Stylish Guide to Classic Sewing” – Book Review and GIVEAWAY
Two of the most creative and stylish ladies I know in this global fashion sewing community, Sarah Gunn of Goodbye Valentino, and Julie Starr, have collaborated once again on a book dedicated to our craft. Their first book, The Tunic Bible, published by C&T Publishing, met with acclaim and well-deserved enthusiasm, establishing itself as the go-to standard for creating one-of-a-kind, flattering tunics. In A Stylish Guide to Classic Sewing, Sarah and Julie broaden their focus to cover a range of styles, namely those that have stood the test of time and are considered “classics.”
I love the size of this book. At 9.5″ x 7.5″, it is easy to hold and use.
The book is very handily compartmentalized into 30 chosen styles, the “classics,” thoughtfully documented by Sarah and Julie. I would have loved to be privy to their brainstorming sessions on what styles to include in this list. There are the obvious ones, of course, such as the pencil skirt, the sheath dress, the shirtdress, and the French jacket. But they also cleverly identified some styles not always necessarily thought of as “classic.” But indeed, they are, and truly deserve their place in this book. Think Halter dress or top, Palazzo Pants, Jeans-style Jacket, and Menswear Pajamas! All these and more are included in this book.
Each chapter deals with one ”Classic” and its history and who, throughout the years, has worn it. Also included are sewing tips, fabric suggestions, and styling guidelines for each classic. Some of the chapters include a cautionary paragraph on how to avoid the “Frump Factor.” Simple changes like altering the hem length or wearing the appropriate shoes can change one of these classics from frumpy to fabulous. Pay attention to the authors’ suggestions because they know about what they are writing!
Here is just one example of tips and styling ideas included with each category.
Accompanying each chapter is also one of my favorite aspects of this book – a carefully chosen quote. I thought I had come across just about every quote about fashion and sewing that was ever spoken or written. But somehow, Sarah and Julie have discovered some real gems and placed them perfectly in the book. Take for example this quote by Winston Churchill included in the chapter for the pencil skirt: “A good speech should be like a woman’s skirt: long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest.”
Or consider this one by Georgio Armani in the chapter on the Bateau Neckline: “Elegance is not standing out, but being remembered.” As one who loves a bateau neckline precisely for its elegant appearance, I found this quote perfectly placed.
The center section of the book, nestled comfortably among the many chapters, is “the Classic Garment Gallery.” I was very flattered to be asked to contribute to this section, which is a compilation of classic styles sewn by “members” of the worldwide sewing community. Here you can see these classic styles modeled by the makers, and it is a marvel to take this all in. Yes, this is a section to return to again and again to get inspiration.
And speaking of inspiration, the absolutely delightful illustrations by Beth Briggs will not only captivate you, they will also provide you with styling ideas and concepts.
At the back of the book is a carefully considered list of Resources. Included are lists of Fabric Books; Fabric Vendors; Fabric Shopping Around the Globe; Trims, Tools, and Notions; Related Articles, Videos, and Online Classes; and Sewing Instruction and Alteration Books. No beginning or advanced devotee of fashion sewing should be without this list of Resources.
Well, no fashion sewing book is complete without a pattern, and I am happy to report that included with A Stylish Guide to Classic Sewing is a multi-sized pattern for the Goodbye Valentino modern classic pencil skirt. There is nothing quite like a pencil skirt for a basic wardrobe component. This is a skirt to be made time and again, following the precise instructions included in the back of the book.
This is a sewing book, and as such, targets those of us whose passion is sewing our own fashions. However, there is much in this book which would be of value to anyone wishing to enhance or perfect her own style. Likewise, it should be inspirational to those just beginning to sew for themselves as well as those who just aspire to it! How perfect is this quote from Audrey Hepburn (page 161): “The most attractive accessory a woman has is confidence.” With this book in hand, you will both sew and dress with confidence and style.
And now, it is with great excitement that I am able to offer my readers a chance to win a copy of this book, compliments of C&T Publishing. Should the winner be a resident of the United States, he or she will receive a print copy of the book; an international winner will receive a digital copy of the book. For a chance to win, please leave a comment with this blog post no later than Sunday, December 8th at 12 noon, Eastern Standard Time. I will draw the winner late afternoon on Sunday, December 8th.
To read more reviews, and for more inspiration, please visit the following sites (dates indicate the day of review):
Dec 2 Lori VanMaanen
Blog – girlsinthegarden.com
Dec 3 Andrea Birkan
Instagram – @andreabirkan
Dec 4 Anita Morris
Blog – anitabydesign.com
Instagram – @anitabydesign
Dec 6 Alex Florea
Blog – sewrendipity.com
Instagram – @sewrendipity
Dec 7 Lucy VanDoorn
Blog – myloveaffairwithsewing.com
Instagram – @myloveaffairwithsewing
Dec 7 Cennetta Burwell
Blog – firstname.lastname@example.org
Instagram – @cennetta_burwell
Dec 8 Manju Nittala
Blog – sewmanju.com
Instagram – @sewmanju
Dec 8 Dorcas Ross
Instagram – @lonestarcouture
Filed under Book reviews, Fashion commentary, Fashion history, Uncategorized
Tagged as fashion sewing, quotes about fashion