Friday, August 4, 2017

Book Review: The Dress in the Window by Sofia Grant

A book review is outside the normal course of business here on this blog, but the subject matter was too appropriate to pass up and the timing was right with my machines being on the slow boat from Thailand.

HarperCollins reached out to me to offer a copy of the new book, The Dress in the Window, by Sofia Grant, for review. I received the book for free, but all the opinions expressed here are my own.

Here is the HarperCollins description of the novel:
World War II has ended and American women are shedding their old clothes for the gorgeous new styles. Longing for a bright future, Jeanne Brink and her sister Peggy overcome their grey pasts by creating stunning dresses for their clients. As they join forces with Peggy’s brilliant sketches and Jeanne’s incredible talent of making them come to life, their sisterly love turns to sibling jealousy. The future is never without surprises, ones that have the potential to make—or break—their dreams.
The novel is set in the Philadelphia area, post-war, and is steeped in sewing, specifically garment making and the American textile industry. The three women in the book, all widows of one variety or another, struggle to support themselves by dressmaking, design and running a textile mill to produce modern blended fabrics. 

I loved the attention to detail from the beginning, from a seamstress' perspective. Just in the first chapter there are references to a pattern not fitting on narrow fabric (the worst!), the debate over the superiority of hems vs. facings, the drama of breaking a needle on a pin, and even my favorite, understitching!

Also, the attention to historical detail seemed pretty on-point. For example, the book discusses war time rationing of fabric (and associated limitations on certain styles) and Dior's dramatic, full skirted New Look that took hold post-war. I'd be interested to hear what a more knowledgeable vintage sewist has to say about it!

Each section of the book is named after a fabric substrate, and has a brief description of that substrate, done in such a way that it relates to the personal and professional drama each of the characters is experiencing. I thought it was an interesting approach. Some of the substrates were familiar (taffeta, tulle, broadcloth, tweed), but others (ninon, brocatelle, greige) were new to me and had me going down a Google rabbit hole to learn more!

The book reminded me a bit of The Dressmaker, lots of family drama couched in the context of dressmaking. It didn't have the same small Aussie town perspective or the dark humor, but was similarly dramatic in terms of the heartbreaking experiences the women in the book endure.

I will admit to being disappointed by the body shaming throughout the book, though. For example, in the first chapter, some offending phrases included "there wasn't a seamstress in the world who could make a cap sleeve that would flatter [her] arms." Also references to a "lumpy figure" and "doughy shoulders." As a curvy seamstress with doughy but bodacious biceps, I found this to be a turn-off in the writing. Maybe it's appropriate for the time period, but in any case, I didn't like it.

All in all, though, I enjoyed the book. It was engaging and I loved the dressmaking and textile details. Sometimes I did find the drama to be a bit emotionally draining. It's an easy read, though, so if you're looking for something to take on your August beach vacation, The Dress in the Window could be the book for you!

Have you read this book? Do you seek out books with dressmaking themes?