I love books and I love fashion so it’s no surprise that I love books about fashion. Especially well written, beautifully illustrated books or books with beautiful photography… and most especially those books that are a bit quirky.
I’m not talking about all books about fashion. I’m not really interested in buying or owning Trinny and Susanna’s latest tome on how to dress your body, or books like Clinton Kelly’s about the top style mistakes women make. I’m sure these books have good style advice, but advice is not really what I’m after. What I want is to be able to experience vicariously the fashion world, or the fashion of an era that I love, through these books.
I bought this memoir by Grace Coddington
last year when it was featured in Keep It Chic
, a couple of years ago. I love Grace Coddington’s sense of style and have been enjoying her work in Vogue
for years. Her memoir of her long tenure in the fashion world is fascinating (she’s over 70 now and she started as a teen-aged model.) The book is not great literature, for while Grace is an inspired fashion editor and a brilliant artist, she’s not a writer. Still, it’s honestly written and fun to read.
The illustrations in the book are Grace’s own and depict the events of her life with wry humour. I actually haven’t finished the book yet. I dip into it every now and then; sitting in my sun room with a cup of tea at my elbow, I open it where I left off last time and step into Grace’s world.
Another favourite fashion book is a kind of advice/how- to book. Well, actually it’s two books. Let me explain. And try to stay with me; this gets complicated.
A few years ago, writer Kathleen Tessaro “stumbled across an extraordinary book in a secondhand bookshop entitled A Guide to Elegance by Genevieve Antoine Dariaux,” or so she says in the forward of her own novel by the same name. Madame Dariaux’s book is an alphabetically organized “Guide to Elegance,” everything from A is for “Accessories” to Z is for “Zippers.”
So, Tessaro finds this book called A Guide to Elegance from the 60’s, written by the long time “directrice” at Nina Ricci in Paris, … uses it as the inspiration for her own novel called Elegance… in which Louise, her hapless character, also finds a copy of the book called A Guide to Elegance … and uses its wisdom to help get her life back on track.
Anyhoo… I read and loved the Tessaro novel. And then I was delighted one day to find, at my local bookstore, the reissued, original, non-fiction book A Guide to Elegance from the 60’s.
I loved thumbing my way through this, taking the advice in the spirit of the age in which it was originally delivered. Mme. Dariaux weighs in on the definition of chic and how to acquire it, the ideal winter wardrobe and the need for tweed suits and “harmonizing sweaters,” the necessity of owning a matching dressing gown and bedroom slippers, the desirability of the “ideal accessory”- a single strand pearl necklace, and when and how a woman should wear a veil.
So many rules. Sigh. How simple dressing must have been then.
I can’t remember where I first heard about Linda Grant’s book The Thoughtful Dresser
. But, trust me, if you love fashion, you must read this book. The subtitle reads “The Art of Adornment, the Pleasures of Shopping and Why Clothes Matter.” Ahhhh. This is the book for me.
Grant really does explore the question of “why clothes matter.” And she does it beautifully, with evocative description, personal anecdotes, and wonderfully insightful analysis. I mean, she is after all an award winning author; she won the Orange Prize and the Lettre Ulysses Award; she was shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker prize and the Guardian Fiction Prize.
Seriously folks…if Linda Grant loves clothes…who are we to look down on other women as shallow if they love fashion??! Not that I do look down on.. them…er …I mean, me.
Grant’s book begins with her description of a red high-heeled shoe, “Glorious, scarlet, insouciant,” and follows with her musings on who the woman might have been who owned that shoe, loved it and wore it on that last day.
You see the shoe is one of a huge pile of other shoes, an exhibit in the museum at Auschwitz, near Krakow in Poland. Grant writes, “The pile of shoes is designed to be symbolic, representing the footwear of twenty-five thousand individuals from one day’s activity at the camp, at the height of the gassings.” That red shoe haunted Grant because, as she says, “someone arrived at Auschwitz wearing, or carrying in her luggage, red high-heeled shoes, and this shoe is all that is left of her.” That unnamed woman once had a life, a family, freedom, and “once upon a time, she liked to shop for stylish footwear.”
The book continues with anecdotes from Grant’s own life and the life of her mother, whose phrase “A good handbag makes the outfit,” Grant says, “had etched itself on [her]childhood.”
She talks about how clothes matter to those erudite and brilliant women we book-lovers revere; women like Edith Warton and George Eliot and Virginia Woolfe. And erudite and brilliant men like Marcel Proust and Emile Zola, who she says “wrote about clothes and cared about clothes.”
That’s right, Emile Zola thought clothes and shopping were important. He “saw the modern department store as a metaphor for modern life.” Remember the television series of a year or so ago The Paradise?
It was based on Zola’s novel The Ladies Paradise.
Some of the best parts of The Thoughtful Dresser,
in my view,
are when Grant gets a little hot under the collar at those people she calls “the puritan moralists who affect to despise fashion and those who love it. Who shrilly proclaim that only vain, foolish Barbie dolls, their brains addled by consumerism, would wear anything but sensible clothes made to last.”
Strong words, Ms. Grant. Yah! Take that you…you ‘puritan moralists!’ God, I love this woman!
I remember when I was reading this book for the first time…I kept taking it to work and reading the best bits aloud to my friends over lunch. It seemed to me as if Linda Grant had awakened one morning and said to herself…”I think I’ll write a book for Sue Burpee.”
Or for anyone who loves literature and fashion in equal parts.