A Moment of Loving Vintage Couture: Reading ‘The Dress’

One of my favourite things about reading, is the way a well-written description can plonk you down right there inside a world you wouldn’t normally enter. A week from now the different kinds of silks and seams might once again be a complete mystery to me. But today, reading Kate Kerrigan’s lovely novelĀ The Dress (2015), I’m living the world of vintage couture right here from my armchair.

“When Honor’s father complained to his wife about their only child’s obsession with making clothes, she pointed out it was his fault. It had all started with Honor making costumes for the amateur dramatic shows which her father ran in his school hall. It was through John’s love of Shakespeare that his daughter had got a taste for velvet capes, puffed medieval sleeves, elaborate beading and gold braiding. Honor spent all her free time embroidering handkerchiefs and making costumes. She would tear up her father’s good shirts and remodel them into blouses for herself, then pick apart clothes she had grown out of and patch-work them into skirts and aprons for her mother.” – Kate Kerrigan, The Dress p. 72

Van naaldwerk weet ek nie juis veel nie – en van modes en ontwerpers waarskynlik nog minder. But even though I can’t stitch a straight seam myself, it’s a wonder to be able to have a book take my hand and trace my fingers along a perfect line of stitches. For a fleeting moment I understand the importance of a properly made piece of clothing:

“Honor was the best seamstress there. She could machine-sew an evening skirt to couture finish in less than two days or embroider the collar and cuff of a blouse so that a socialite would pay a small fortune for it.” – Kate Kerrigan, The Dress. p. 69

For a short while, I know about intricate hand-made lace and the proper way to sew on a pearl button – two things so far removed from my usual wear that it is like words from a fairy tale:

“When the lace arrived, in a simple brown postal package, Honor carefully moved back the tissue paper and placed the delicate material on the back of Joy’s hand. It was like gossamer, so fragile that Joy was afraid it might melt into her skin. ‘Will it be strong enough for you to work with?’ Joy whispered, afraid the very sound of her voice might break it. ‘Trust me,’ Honor said, ‘it might look as if it’s made from butterfly wings, but actually it’s unbreakable,’ and she stretched the fabric tight between her fingers, making Joy cry out. ‘Don’t worry. Making lace is a delicate, precise process but once it’s made, nothing can break it. As I said, it contains soul, and let’s face it, there’s nothing tougher than the soul of an old nun.’ – Kate Kerrigan, The Dress. p. 171

One of my other favourite things about a good book, is how it can make me jump up to do something, like I described in an earlier postĀ here. Reading about the velvets and pleats and crystals, brought unexpected pleasure to the act of ironing my handkerchiefs today – which due to my low iron wardrobe hardly ever happens. Suddenly the soft gliding noise with the occasional puff of steam along an embroidered flower, made wooden floor and draped dummies spill over from the pages into my living room.

How delicious it is when a writer can make you see why somebody loves something, even when it is something you don’t love that way yourself. I might even stretch out my hand tonight to that garment that needs a small alteration I’ve been putting off for so long. Just so that the feel of the needle and tread can make the charm of the story last longer.