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The Thoughtful Dresser: The Art of Adornment, the Pleasures of Shopping, and Why Clothes Matter Paperback – April 20, 2010
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About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Dress has never been at all a straightforward business: so much subterranean interest and complex feeling attaches to it. As a topic, it is popular because it is dangerous—it has a flowery head but deep roots in the passions. On the subject of dress almost no one, for one or another reason, feels truly indifferent: if their own clothes do not concern them, somebody else’s do. ELIZABETH BOWEN
TWELVE YEARS AGO I saw a red high-heeled shoe from an earlier era. Glorious, scarlet, insouciant, it blazed away amid the rubber soles and strong cotton shoelaces as if to say, “Take me dancing!”
At night, when I cannot get to sleep, I sometimes distract myself by inventing its imaginary owner. I see her waking one morning in a foreign city, and as she raises the blinds on a spring day, the sun striking the copper rooftops, she realizes that she must go out this very moment and buy a pair of red shoes. A wide-awake girl in a white nightgown parting the shutters on a Paris day, drinking a cup of coffee, lighting a cigarette, thoughtfully smoking it before she quickly eats a roll, puts on her lipstick, and leaves the house.
Or I wonder, instead, if she is somewhat older—say, thirty-eight—in a gray wool coat and lines descending each side of her mouth, a small ruddy birthmark on the side of her right cheek, which she fruitlessly tries to cover up by curling her hair in waves below her ears, but the wind always catches it and exposes the strawberry stain. She is walking down a Prague street, a shopping basket over her arm, to the market to buy carrots, leeks, mackerel, and passes by chance a shoe shop, and there are the red shoes in the window—all by themselves on a little plinth raised above the lesser footwear, the price tag coyly peeking out from the base—and she has such a powerful urge to go in and try them on that that is what she does. Even though her husband, who is a little mean, would go mad if he saw how much they cost. He married her because of his jealousy and her birthmark: he could not stand another man to look at his wife.
The shoes fit. She empties the contents of her purse, counting out the coins and notes, and flees home with them tied up in a brown paper parcel, and hides them for several days at the back of the wardrobe. Not once does she think about her birthmark.
Or is she the Imelda Marcos of Central Europe, a rich, bored woman with countless pairs of shoes, a widow with a younger lover whom she will never allow to see her without a full face of powder, rouge, and lipstick? Or I think of a humble shopgirl or secretary who saved her wages for weeks circling past the shop, always fearing that by the time she had the money to pay for the shoes they would be gone.
I have tried to imagine the transaction in the shop in dozens of ways, and then the figure of a woman walking home (or driving, or taking a bus, a tram, a taxi), but whatever her station in life, her age, her figure, and her marital situation, the one thing I can be sure of is what she felt: that pleasurable frisson of excitement and delight when a woman makes a new purchase in the clothing department, and particularly an item as nonutilitarian as a pair of red high-heeled shoes.
Whatever her identity, I am certain she would have loved those shoes, or they would not have ended up where they did. She would have left them at home at the start of the journey if she couldn’t stand in them.
The red high-heeled shoe exists. You can see it for yourself if you travel to Poland, drive a couple of hours west from KrakÓw, and visit the museum which is what remains of the main camp at Auschwitz (not Auschwitz-Birkenau, an extension, which is a couple of miles away, the site of the Final Solution against the Jews). Auschwitz I was the administrative center of the death camp. It is a popular excursion for tourists and Polish schoolchildren who are taken there by their teachers to learn about history. I don’t know if they do or not.
Behind one of the glass-fronted display cases lies a great mountain of footwear, found by the liberating army in a part of the camp known as Kanada, in January 1945. The goods collected from the deportees, when they arrived by train, were placed there to be sorted through and distributed to the civilian population of Germany. The pile of shoes is designed to be symbolic, representing the footwear of twenty-five thousand individuals from one day’s activity at the camp, at the height of the gassings.
So someone arrived at Auschwitz wearing, or carrying in her luggage, red high-heeled shoes, and this shoe is all that is left of her. When I visited Auschwitz, I was transfixed by the shoe, for it reminded me that the victims were once people so lighthearted that they went into a shop and bought red high-heeled footwear, the least sensible kind of shoe you can wear. They were human, fallibly human, and like us; they took pleasure and delight in the trivial joys of fashion. This anonymous, murdered woman, who died before I was born, would surely have bought her shoes in the same spirit that I bought mine.
Apart from underwear, more fragile and temporal, shoes are the most intimate garments we wear. They are imprinted with the shape of our bodies. Looking at the shoes in the artfully arranged pile at Auschwitz, I saw not a monument, but fashion. The fashion in the late thirties for red high-heeled shoes. So you have genocide, and you have fashion, and genocide could not be more awful and serious and fashion could not be more superficial. Yet the woman who bought the shoes was not only a statistic of the Final Solution. Once upon a time, she liked to shop for stylish footwear.
Whenever I have bought expensive, painful, unnecessary shoes, I have thought about her, the now anonymous woman who arrived at the camp wearing the shoe (and its partner) or carrying it in her luggage. She was not anonymous then. She had a name, a life. Freedom, in its way, was the right to buy expensive luxuries, to own nice things. Fashion exists, whatever you think about it. It’s everywhere, even in the gruesome relics of an extermination camp.
You can’t have depths without surfaces. It’s impossible. And sometimes surfaces are all we have to go by. In the case of the shoe in the camp, that’s it, there’s nothing else—not whether she was a good mother or a dutiful daughter or a medical student or a keen reader or a skilled chess player. The shoe is all there is, and it has its own eloquent language and says a great deal.
When, several months ago, I started to write about the red shoe in the pile at Auschwitz, I had a doubt about its authenticity. It was known by architectural historians that the displays at what is now the museum had been the product of tinkering by postwar Polish communist ideology, designed to illustrate the great antifascist struggle. The camp you enter as a visitor in 2009 is not the same camp that was liberated by the Soviet troops in January 1945. A lot of things have been moved about (to create a cafeteria, toilets, and gift shop), and it was always possible that the red shoe had been bought at a shop in KrakÓw sometime in the sixties and added by the museum’s curators to create an effect.
A friend suggested that I ask the expert, Robert Jan van Pelt, who had written the definitive study of Auschwitz and its satellite camps, a book I had read several years earlier, before my own visit to Poland. Extremely nervous, I e-mailed him in Toronto, tentatively explaining that I wanted to check whether the red shoe was what it was purported to be and not a postwar fake. Expecting a dusty answer. How dare I reduce and trivialize the greatest crime of the twentieth century to a thesis on stylish footwear!
But almost at once I received a reply. Yes, he said, the shoe was indeed kosher, so to speak. But his wife, Miriam Greenbaum, had an additional question. Was I that Linda Grant who wrote sometimes about fashion, and if I was, would I like to meet a woman who had survived Auschwitz to become the great doyenne of Canadian style, the retailer who had introduced to a conservative female market such designers as Versace, Armani, Ferre, and Missoni? Indeed had survived because of her own vanity, out of a young girl’s desire to, as she says, “look pretty”? And because she knew how to take one piece of clothing and turn it into another?
I traveled to Toronto to meet Catherine Hill, a woman who understood fashion and who understood darkness. For many days I sat with her in her apartment while she, with great courage, revisited places in the past so painful to be forced to remember, but always shared with me her stupendous insight into fashion and the great designers she knows, throwing a great searchlight on the questions I had been thinking about all those years. What fashion is, its significance, and why clothes matter—what happens when even clothes have been taken away from you.
For as Catherine Hill revealed to me, it is in the pleasure that we take in clothes that we are at our most elementally human. In clothes the story of the human race begins.
In my own life, thank God, there has been no such suffering, only the usual disappointments and sadnesses we can all expect. Nothing truly terrible has ever happened to me.
When I look back I can detect the various periods through what I wore. I see myself at fourteen, wearing hideous clothes because I am both fashionable enough and conformist enough to have to have what everyone else is wearing whether it suits me or not. At nineteen, I’m a hippie, in maxidresses and a curtain of long hair, parted in the middle. At twenty-two, I exclusively wear clothes which are now called vintage but were then just secondhand or even “old”—1930s crepe de chine evening gowns, puff-sleeved blouses from the war. I bought them at Kensington Antique Market in London and scorned the browns, oranges, and huge collars of the era. ... --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
More About the Author
Her first book, Sexing the Millennium: A Political History of the Sexual Revolution was published in 1993. Her first novel, The Cast Iron Shore, published in 1996, won the David Higham First Novel Award and was shortlisted for the Guardian Fiction Prize. Remind Me Who I am Again, an account of her mother's decline into dementia and the role that memory plays in creating family history, was published in 1998 and won the MIND/Allen Lane Book of the Year award and the Age Concern Book of the Year award. Her second novel, When I Lived in Modern Times, set in Tel Aviv in the last years of the British Mandate, published in March 2000, won the Orange Prize for Fiction and was shortlisted for the Jewish Quarterly Prize and the Encore Prize. Her novel, Still Here, published in 2002, was longlisted for the Booker Prize. Her non-fiction work, The People On The Street: A Writer's View of Israel, published in 2006, won the Lettre Ulysses Prize for Literary Reportage. Her Booker Prize shortlisted novel, The Clothes On Their Backs, was published in February 2008. Linda's most recent book, The Thoughful Dresser was published in March 2009.
She has written a radio play, Paul and Yolande, which was broadcast on Radio 4 in October 2006, and a short story, Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, part of a week of stories by Liverpool writers commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Beatles, Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, broadcast in July 2007.
She has also contributed to various collections of essays. Her work is translated into French, German, French, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Czech, Russian, Polish, Turkish and Chinese.
The Clothes On Their Backs Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2008
Winner South Bank Show Award
The People on the Street:
A Writer's View of Israel Lettre Ulysses Prize for Literary Reportage
When I Lived in Modern Times Winner, Orange Prize for Fiction 2000
Shorlisted: Jewish Quarterly Prize
Remind Me Who I Am, Again Mind Book of the Year 1999
Age Concern Book of the Year 1999
The Cast Iron Shore David Higham First Novel Prize
Shortlisted Guardian Fiction Prize
Top Customer Reviews
"We fall victim to a cake because it is delicious. Interestingly the angry rages against unnecessary clothes are seldom replicated in moral campaigns against flambeed cherries or steak au poivre. No one pickets restaurants or rails against the conspicuous waste of unnecessary calories in a three-course meal.... It is pointless fashion, not pointless cuisine, that gets the moralists's goat, and you would have to be pretty dim not to sniff the stench of misogyny that surrounds their outrage." (p. 99)
Do you think you have no interest in clothing and fashion? Linda Grant will show you that there is much more involved than you might guess. All people wear clothes almost every moment of their lives, and make some type of choices of what those clothes are. Clothes, she demonstrates, are never without meaning. She describes how the victims of some of the twentieth century's most horrifying outrages managed their pain by enjoying the beauty of well-made clothing: we can't have depths, she points out, without surfaces. One subject of the book is a woman named Catherine Hill, who survived Auschwitz and became a leader in bringing European high-level fashion to Canada. The depths and surfaces of this woman provide insights into what Grant is saying about the meaning of clothing.Read more ›
Grant's book seems to come out of her blog by the same name. I suppose that when I first saw the book I imagined that it would read something like a fashion blog. Perhaps a deconstruction of why certain clothes create different auras and the history of clothes. Instead, we get an interesting history of an Auschwitz survivor who goes on to become a professional shopper and various tidbits of Grant's own personal life.
Much of it felt a bit boring to me, maybe because I was expecting something else from the book. It's not a book that I would pick up again, but it was nice for the one read-through. I did learn a few new things--I love shoes, but Grant loves handbags. One of her mantras (from her mom) is that a good handbag makes an outfit. I don't necessarily agree; I'm one of those people with the same bag all the time (in a boring black, as she points out). If you are interested in reading about Grant's life--it reads a bit like a memoir with clothes as the structure--then pick up this book. Otherwise, move on.
Maybe it is our similar backrounds (Eastern European, mothers with dementia) or similar ages (middle), but I was able to put myself in some of the scenarios. I too, am starting to shop like a grownup and last week I bought the most
expensive and beautiful jacket I have ever owned, knowing that it will still look good in ten years.
I liked her sections on Catherine Hill and Emily Tinne.
The key word in the title is "Thoughtful".
I highly recommend it.
The memories that pop up are wonderful. My older sisters had the classic type of clothes, cashmere sweater sets, pearls. Stockings with seams, garter belts. I myself has a "poodle skirt" with lots of crinolines underneath. The fuller, the better.
If you're a fashionista, this will give you some history so you get a feel for the evolution of fashion. What a trip!
I will be passing this book on to my granddaughter who was born into "fashionista-dom." She is 12 and has been interested in fashion since she could talk. There exists a great possibility that her career will be a fashion designer so this book is a necessity for her.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Being that most people going out for the evening for dinner, parties, or church are dressing so shabby these days, it was refreshing to hear from someone so well informed about how... Read morePublished 10 days ago by Frances Fielding
Really enjoyed it from the perspective of a consumer & retailer.Published 9 months ago by Edna Galo
Unlike other reviewers, it took me quite some time to finish this book. I plodded along hoping for some revelation which never really surfaced until the end (by way of Catherine... Read morePublished 20 months ago by Sleepybatman
This book provided a wide spectrum of all the reasons one chooses to dress a certain way along with the background of the fashion choices. Read morePublished on December 7, 2013 by Edye Baker
I read three chapters and couldn't get started again. Not the grabber I'd hoped. A review I read said good for a book club pick, but I don't think so.Published on June 12, 2013 by debmo
If you are interested in clothes, fashion, women, or history, you will find this an interesting read. It will leave you thinking about your clothing choices for quite a while.Published on December 30, 2012 by susie
At first, I found this book to be a bit odd and overly contemplative, but then I found myself engrossed in its narrative. Read morePublished on July 8, 2012 by Jordan Phillips
"I've become impatient when people claim they don't care about clothes. They still dress every morning, and if they are going to reject fashion, they still need clothes to show... Read morePublished on May 21, 2012 by Terri Rice
I am studying fashion and I was so relieved to find a beautifully written book about the essence and sentiment of clothing. Read morePublished on April 11, 2012 by A. White