Saturday, April 23, 2011

Book Review - Vintage all the way

Title: The Secret Lives of Dresses
Author: Erin McKean
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Hachette Australia)
Year of Publication: 2011
Page extent: 290

I love vintage clothing. I love most vintage things, but vintage clothing in particular is especially enticing to a female in her twenties. So, when I saw the cover of this book in the local book shop, I had to pick it up and read the blurb on the back. The dress alone on the front cover was enough to convince me to buy the book, but the blurb on the back sounded perfect for our recent beach holiday.

Author Erin McKean runs a popular website called Dress A Day, where she lists vintage patterns she find and the fabrics she uses. There is some gorgeously kitsch stuff on there, and if you're a fan of the fashion from Mad Men, you'll love her site. So it makes sense that she used her love of vintage fashion as the basis for her book, The Secret Lives of Dresses.

Dora is a university student on the brink of graduating and being accepted into graduate school. She works in a coffee shop in her university town and harbors a crush on the manager, a grad student who flirts incessantly with her but takes it no further. Her uniform is jeans, t-shirts and comfortable shoes - a far cry from her grandmother Mimi's vintage clothing boutique. When Mimi suffers a stroke, Dora rushes home to sit at her bedside, but finds herself taking charge of the boutique in Mimi's absence. Having grown up watching Mimi run the shop, and assisting there herself, she's able to run the shop perfectly and keep her mind off Mimi's worsening condition.

As Dora works in the shop, she tries to plan the next stage of her life: graduate school. If she goes to graduate school, she'll have a shot with incompetent Gary, the manager at the cafe she works in, who declared that he doesn't date undergrads. With little else to inspire her, Dora sets her sights on grad school, knowing that if nothing else, she'll be able to go on a date with Gary. Her future has no direction other than to get that far. She has no real career aspirations, and taking over her grandmother's shop gives her time to reassess her life. Returning to her hometown, and to her childhood bedroom with its cupboard full of vintage clothes (that she never wanted to wear), Dora begins to re-evaluate the direction her life is taking.

As she takes over the shop, and meets Con, the architect working upstairs, Dora slowly begins to appreciate the importance her grandmother placed on the clothes she sold. The discovery one day that some pieces of clothing have a "Secret Life", written by Mimi and given to the purchaser amazed Dora, as Mimi remained tight-lipped about many things in her life. These Secret Lives are little biographies created by Mimi to give the item of clothing a story, a personality that the buyer connects with. With Mimi's friend Gloria and the quirky shop assistant Maux, Dora delves into a life she thought she'd left behind, with surprising results.

McKean writes her female characters well - they feel different to the usual chick-lit stereotypes. At first glance, Dora seems like a fairly bland, directionless student. But as the story progresses and she gets drawn in to Mimi's world, Dora slowly emerges from her shell and begins to figure out what's important. There isn't too much keening for Gary, and the introduction of Con (who I wish we saw more of) doesn't shake Dora to her core. Rather, she takes it in stride, somewhat bemused and entertained by his attention. The kind-hearted Gloria, Mimi's roommate and friend, and tough talking Maux add some nice contrast to Dora's alternating grief-stricken and nostalgic frames of mind throughout the novel. McKean's descriptions of the vintage clothes is so specific and personal it's almost as if a fourth major character has been added to the plot. It's easy to imagine the beautifully tailored suits and stunning retro gowns, and the effect they have on people. And to be honest, it made me want to go out and update my entire wardrobe with vintage clothing.

This book isn't the best book you'll ever read. But you know what? When you do read it, you'll feel like someone wrapped you up in a blanket and gave you some hot chocolate to sip on. It's just so comforting and cute. It moves along at a perfect pace, the characters aren't moronic women who dither over every little decision. And there are some awesome pieces of clothing in there. All in all, it's just a really nice book - so pick it up if you have the chance, especially if you're going on holiday somewhere. It's just that kind of book.

In a word: good
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Melsmum said...

Thanks for the review Julia. I looked at this book in the shop the other day, but bought another one instead. Now I think I might go back and buy this one too.

Natalie said...

I read this recently too and agree - it's a cute book but nothing special, just a nice way to while away a few hours.

Julia @ Boredom Abounds said...

Melsmum - it's a cute read. Nice for a rainy afternoon!

Natalie, I agree - not the best book every, but a nice, light and fluffy read!

Hannah said...

Oh Julia, what I desperately want these days are books that feel like I'm snuggling up with chocolate! I've been a third of the way through Bleak House for over a year now... :S

I'm going to look this book up for sure - perhaps I can book depository it :)

Julia @ Boredom Abounds said...

Hannha - it is PERFECT for snuggling up to read on a rainy day with chocolate! Definitely see if you can find a copy somewhere.

Heidi - Apples Under My Bed said...

Great review, thank you! I love the sound of this book. Perfect for that kind of read you mentioned. And that dress on the front cover, yes please!!
Heidi xo

Jenny (VintageSugarcube) said...

I love the idea of vintage dresses into something modern. Thanks for the links and ideas. :)