Sartorial Splendor: Falling into Fashion | The Reader’s Shelf, September 15, 2012

Anyone who watches Project Runway knows there is a story behind every outfit, and these books prove that point. The stories of chic clothes and the women who create them, wear them, and sell them stress fashion’s ability to reference the past and express hope in the future.

In The Secret Lives of Dresses (5 Spot: Grand Central. 2011. ISBN 9780446555722. pap. $13.99), Erin ­McKean, lexicographer and mastermind behind the popular blog A Dress a Day, spins her upbeat, quirky, and charmingly imaginative blog posts into this lively and entertaining fiction debut. As Dora muddles her way into her 20s, she is called to action: her grandmother has had a stroke and needs Dora to take over her vintage clothing store. Feeling like a fish out of water, Dora steps into her grandmother’s stylish shoes to do right by the woman who raised her and soon discovers that there is more to her grandmother than carefully coordinated sweater sets. With a new list of responsibilities, a possible romance, and an improved wardrobe, Dora finds the courage to pursue the dreams she never knew she had.

The sinking of the Titanic a century ago sets the stage for Kate Alcott’s gripping novel The Dressmaker (Doubleday. 2012. ISBN 9780385535588. $25.95). Inspired by the true-life story of fashion designer Lady ­Lucile Duff Gordon, Alcott crafts a tightly woven tale of Tess Collins, a young woman who impetuously leaves her job as a housemaid to make her way onto the enormous ship. Tess’s and Gordon’s fates collide as Tess is taken on as a last-minute replacement for Gordon’s missing maid, and they are soon irrevocably bound together. The Senate inquiry into the disaster draws Tess into the center of a conflict, and while she can see that Gordon’s behavior in the aftermath of the sinking was questionable, once Tess visits Gordon’s workroom in New York, she is smitten by the thought of elevating her own fashionable aspirations.

As you read A Vintage Affair (Bantam. 2011. ISBN 9780553386622. pap. $15), it’s hard to resist the purchase of a frothy 1950s prom dress just like the ones that Isabel Wolff describes so tantalizingly well in her eighth novel. Her delightful tale perfectly melds a little romance, an interfering mother, a long-lost friendship, and an elderly woman with a mysterious past. Sure, Phoebe Swift’s vintage clothing store holds sartorial treasures from past to present, but it also represents the extent of Phoebe’s passion for the stories that surround each stocking and skirt.

Fans of historical fiction will lose themselves in Maria Dueñas’s The Time in Between (Atria: S. & S. 2012. ISBN 9781451616897. pap. $16), which spans continents and conflicts, as well as couture. Spanish seamstress Sira Quiroga has practiced her craft since she was a teenager and by her 20s is an established businesswoman. Her life is thrown into turmoil, however, by the Spanish Civil War as well as her own uncontrollable passions. Over the course of the novel, Sira travels from Spain to Morocco and back again as World War II engulfs Europe; she survives by creating original designs for the wives of Nazi officers and using the gossip she overhears in her shop to collaborate with the British secret service.

For those interested in the nonfiction side of the closet, Caroline Weber’s Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution (Picador. 2007. ISBN 9780312427344. pap. $17) offers a fascinating historical look at one of the most steadfastly fashionable women of her time. Marie Antoinette arrived in France as an obedient dauphine who blossomed into a queen with a distinct, and often reckless, sense of style that made a statement both personally and politically. As Marie Antoinette pushed the fashion envelope, Parisians pushed back, even going so far as to pass around pamphlets declaring that her clothes and hair were treasonous. Even on her way to the guillotine, Marie Antoinette remained stylish, dressed in white.

Kabul may not have couture shops, Fashion Week, or glossy fashion mags, but it does have Kamila Sidiqi, the focus of Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe (HarperPerennial: HarperCollins. 2012. ISBN 9780061732478. pap. $14.99). When the Taliban gained control of Afghanistan, Sidiqi found herself confined to her home and the only provider for her five siblings. As Sidiqi realized that her recent teaching degree would be worthless in such limited surroundings, she learned how to sew and soon became one of the most sought-after seamstresses in the city. Lemmon’s highly narrative account is a deftly written portrait of resilience and passion.

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Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ's online feature Wyatt's World and is the author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers' advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader's Shelf should contact her directly at