To paraphrase Sir Percy Blakeney in the 1982 BBC production of The Scarlet Pimpernel—still the best of the various versions of this classic, including the original novel—fashion never was my forte. I’m an academic by temperament and by training, so even if I did have the wherewithal to dress myself in haute couture gowns, it would both look and feel odd. Standing out in a crowd is one thing; appearing to have come from another universe something quite different.
But despite the choices I’ve made in my own life, I can appreciate a beautiful dress for the work of art that it is, and that applies especially to the mid-twentieth-century creations of Christian Dior. The gown in this gorgeous book cover is just one example.
Because he made his mark starting in 1947 and died ten years later, most of the images of Dior’s gowns are not yet public domain, although this collection of toiles (physical blueprints for planned gowns made out of cheap linen or cotton to test the structure of the dress) from the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris is one exception. In my most recent interview for New Books in Historical Fiction, the author Jade Beer talks about how an exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London—Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams (2019), which included a similar setup as well as many finished pieces—inspired her latest dual-time novel. Read on to find out more.
As always, the rest of this post first appeared on New Books in Historical Fiction.
London, 2017. Lucille will do anything for her beloved grandmother. So when Granny Sylvie volunteers to send her to Paris to retrieve a beloved Dior creation left in the city many years ago, Lucille accepts. Why not escape for the weekend, when home means dealing with her hostile, demanding boss and a mother so uncaring that she’s forgotten Lucille’s birthday for five years in a row? Not long after arriving in Paris, however, Lucille discovers that the one dress is actually eight, and two of those are missing, including the Maxim’s, which she was specifically tasked with bringing back to London. Soon she is searching all over the city, in the company of her new friends Veronique and Leon, while her boss screams his frustration over the phone.
This present-day story intertwines with one set in Paris in 1952, featuring Alice Ainsley, the young, newlywed wife of Britain’s ambassador to France. Alice’s wealth and her position in society require her to look and act the part of the perfect hostess. Who better to dress her for that role than Christian Dior, whose New Look is taking the fashionable world by storm? Alice soon becomes the envy of her insulated social set, but her apparently blissful existence conceals great insecurity and hurt. Her husband has lost interest in her since the honeymoon, and the couple only grows farther apart over time.
Jade Beer does a wonderful job of interweaving these two timelines, keeping us guessing as to how they connect well into the book. And the contrast between Lucille’s modern approach to life, even when it lets her down, and Alice’s more limited options, despite her apparent prosperity, reveal the vast gulf between the 1950s view of women and our own, as well as the subtle ways in which one generation’s choices influence those of the next.
Images: Photograph by Joe DeSousa of the Christian Dior Exhibit at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, 2017, CC0 1.0 universal public domain; photograph of the outfit known as the Bar Suit or the Maxim’s (after a restaurant in Paris favored by the avant-garde), 1947, from an exhibit held in Moscow in 2011 © shakko, CC 3.0, both via Wikimedia Commons.