My reading list: The Secret Life of Dresses

secrect lives of dresses bookcover

Author: Erin McKean

I bought this book from a second-hand bookstore in Fremantle as air-travel distraction and it was quite good at doing just that. It’s the usual formula for chick-lit, I suppose. Young educated yet emotionally torn woman learns value and self-worth from the Elders in her life (usually after a situation of some kind has occurred), and then finds acceptance and love from a man who loves her particular brand of quirkiness. All that happens in this story, true, but it’s the side-story that surrounds the formula that makes or breaks this genre.

And the side story of The Secret Life of Dresses is the life and hobby of the grandmother, Mimi. Dora, the main character, escapes a going-nowhere relationship with her boss to be with her grandmother who has suffered a stroke and lies comatose in hospital. Mimi’s hobby and passion was collecting vintage outfits, which she wore, kept or resold in her vintage boutique. We’re talking vintage designer here not thrift store. For all of Dora’s life, Mimi has also been collecting outfits that suit her to a “T”. Unfortunately, for Dora, they were nearly always not in fashionable and therefore not acceptable to her teenage peers so she rarely wore them.

Of course, now that she’s twenty-something and has raced off without packing a change of clothes, Dora finds the collection not so bad (and better than nudity). Luckily for her, Mimi had a whole room full of outfits just for Dora.

Part of Mimi’s fascination with vintage outfits had been the stories that went along with them. Some came with the pieces, others she made up. Each dress with a story was labelled as such and, when sold, the story shared with the new owner. Mimi was quite the creative writer and the stories behind the dresses are well-done. Some, as Dora finds out later, are mixed with the truth and help her to understand her deceased parents as well as the earlier life of her grandmother.

I thought the novel interesting, sad in places and happy in others, with an original side-story. I’ve always been fascinated by the stories that old houses have to share about the generations of people that lived within their walls.  I also love vintage dresses.

An interesting link (if only in my own head) is the story behind the Darnell Collection of International Vintage Couture, which has recently been on exhibition at the Hazelhurst Regional Gallery in Gymea. Some beautiful outfits (and some not so; really, what were people thinking in the 1970s?), all in good original condition or restored. The collection includes dresses from the late 1700s to the present. I stopped at the end of the display to read some of the history behind it all. Doris Darnell’s hobby was fashion. She collected dresses her entire life and had them on display, loaned them out and, of course, wore many of them. When she died she left about half of what she owned to her niece, Charlotte Smith… including the stories behind many of the outfits.  Darnell was as interested in the stories as the dresses, which makes the collection a fascinating, and extensive, social history as well. Take a look at this video: In conversation with Charlotte Smith

If you liked the book, you’ll love the exhibition. My favourite dress was the long blue evening gown… and you’ll find the author’s blog: A Dress A Day interesting as well. It’s focus is on vintage sewing  patterns (Erin creates a story for each of the pattern covers), fabrics, and clothing.

If you love vintage fashion, keep outfits in your wardrobe because they remind you of a special moment, or just need an interesting read for a plane trip, you’ll enjoy The Secret Life of Dresses.

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