Fashion and Fiction: Linda Grant

The Thoughtful Dresser by Linda Grant

published 2009

Thoughtful Dresser

[Christian Dior launched what became known as the New Look in 1947]

The ‘Bar’ suit: …an off-white shantung silk jacket with sloping shoulders, and ballerina-length pleated black skirt, an outfit which requires a twenty-one-inch waist and very severe, rib-deforming corsetry, as depicted in an accompanying short film at the exhibition. Nevertheless I appreciated its qualities as I might a painting by Leonardo da Vinci. I know now that the effortless elegance of the ensemble, as my mother would have called it (quaint word, now out of use), including the inverted saucer-shaped straw hat and the black gloves, the white pointed-toe shoes which look as if they are already dying to grow up and become the as-yet-to-be-invented stilettos (Roger Vivier, Dior’s shoe guy will later create those by installing a metal rod in the heel), is a masterpiece of engineering.

The illustration that would appear in French Vogue showed ‘Bar’ as an airy creation, almost ethereal. In real life the wearer was held in place by a series of agonising restraints. ‘Bar’ is not so much sewn as constructed, using, Dior confided, ‘solid fabrics whose weight was reinforced with taffeta or cambric linings’, not to mention underpinnings in the form of underwired bustiers, girdles, tulle and horsehair petticoats, and a strap-on device called a peplum that padded the hips in order to draw attention to the waist. Sheer torture, but I don’t care. It is the most elemental, iconic, feminine garment of the twentieth century.

observations: Earlier this year I went to the first Fashion and Fiction event at London’s V&A Museum – this blog entry on Margaret Atwood was the result. Journalist and writer Rosie Goldsmith is organizing this series of evenings, and can you imagine anything more Clothes in Books? The latest event in the series took place on Tuesday this week.

Linda Grant is one of my favourite authors anyway – on the blog I have featured I Murdered my Library, Upstairs at the Party, and The Clothes on Their Backs, and she and I come from the same part of Liverpool, and visited the same bookshops when we were young. She writes great, intelligent novels, with wonderful heroines, and she knows why clothes are important. She gave a fascinating talk at Tuesday’s event, and then participated in a conversation with Rosie and answered questions from the audience. She is a terrific advocate for clothes in books, and helps the cause because her books are taken seriously, despite being entertaining and containing clothes descriptions…

The Thoughtful Dresser is non-fiction, and states Grant’s case for the importance of adornment and clothing via the story of her life in clothes, with a series of anecdotes about herself and her family, and the stories of others – in particular, an Auschwitz survivor. Linda Grant meets her because she is researching the existence of a red shoe in the pile of shoes in the camp memorial. The woman she finds has a transcendent story, and one that would make the stoniest heart weep.

And Grant also tackles other questions: the clothes above, as she says, are very beautiful. Should women wear torturing clothes to look beautiful? Why do we wear heels we can’t walk in, dresses we can’t run in? She has a refreshing view on everything. She talks about the difference between car style and street style; she knows about buying

two cosmetic products  because if you do, you will receive, absolutely free for nothing, a make-up bag containing samples of other products, half of which you’ll give to a friend’s teenage daughter.

And I loved this reason for always having  a beautiful coat, no matter how old you are:

I like the image of ruined old women, sitting in their last mink in a café, smoking a cigarette and drinking a small, appetite-suppressing cup of coffee. I buy my coat against that potential future. Even if the lipstick bleeds into the cracks, at least we’re seen. In a recession you cannot allow life to turn beige.

Grant also talked about the Paul Gallico book, Mrs Harris Goes to Paris, in which a Cockney charwoman saves up for a Dior dress - blog entry here.

The picture, taken by Willy Maywald, is from Kristine’s photostream, and this is the caption:
In 1947, Christian Dior presented a collection of wasp-waisted and hip-padded designs. The "Bar" suit was considered the most iconic model in the collection, manifesting all the attributes of Dior's dramatic atavism. Featuring rounded shoulders, a cinched waist and a long pleated wool full skirt, backed with cambric, which is exceptionally heavy. The 'New Look' celebrated ultra-femininity and opulence in women’s fashion. Harper’s Bazaar editor-in-chief, Carmel Snow, named Dior’s revolutionary direction, ‘The New Look.’ Although Dior created many notched collars, he was a fervent advocate of shawl collars and curved necklines. Arguably, the shawl collar plays effectively with the curvaceous forms Dior articulated at the shoulders and hips.

I am looking forward to future Fashion and Fiction events – you can find the Facebook page here, and thanks again to Rosie Goldsmith for taking such a great idea and running with it…

ADDED LATER: Meanwhile, blogfriend Daniel Milford Cottam left a comment below regarding the dating of the iconic photograph. He recommends this blogpost from Jonathan Walford - which suggests that the photo is from 10 years later and has subtle differences from the original. Well worth a read, and the comments on the post (including some from Daniel) are particularly fascinating and detailed and informative.


  1. What a great event for you, Moira! And the book sounds really interesting, too. I think it's fascinating when a fiction author 'steps aside' and does a non-fiction book on a topic of interest like that. And there is so much for Grant to look at, too, in the book. Little wonder you found it such a great read.

    1. It could have been designed for me Margot! But I think anyone would find it a worthwhile read.

  2. An interesting note about this picture - it is actually from 1955-57, and the hat and shoes are from the later period. Here's a great blog on the image and its dating issues!!

    1. Thanks Daniel, truly riveting - I have added a note above. The only clue I had got at all was the hat, which wasn't quite what you would be expecting.

  3. I am sure this does have lots of interesting stories. If I run into it I will try it out. I remember my younger years in the South when how you dressed was very important. Moving to California was an eye-opener for me.

    1. That sounds intriguing Tracy - I would love to know more. Of course it matches with my books interest, but I am always fascinated in the ways clothes are significant.

  4. Fascinating about that photo being 10 years later - so falsely iconic! (And I really enjoyed Grant's book and her other one about clothes -- you can feel how much she loves them. My feet hurt just thinking about those shoes, though.)

    1. Yes, Grant really is the business when it comes to clothes. I am always surprised by how (comparatively) recent stilettos are. And glad I don't wear them... flat shoes all the way for me now, sigh.


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