My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This novel piqued my interest following the two recent royal weddings in England, which must have required prodigious feats of planning and organizing. Queen Elizabeth II’s own wedding took place seven decades ago, when she was still a princess and her country was grappling with the myriad deprivations caused by WWII. Discovering that the story was told from the points of view of the embroiderers of the wedding dress clinched the deal, and I raced through this fascinating book, enthralled by the details of the experiences of the ordinary women who created this most important gown. The narrative unfolds in two far apart years and places, London during 1947 and Toronto in 2016.
Norman Hartnell functioned as couturier to the royal family during the 40’s and 50’s, and he and his army of seamstresses and embroiderers would create Elizabeth’s top secret wedding dress, with much stress and drama along the way. One of these skilled embroiderers was a real life French refugee named Miriam Dassin, who later in the century would become world renowned as a talented textile artist. Miriam, who features prominently in the book’s historical narrative, will also play a role in the 2016 segments. The second is the fictional Ann Hughes, who takes her in as flatmate. Through their eyes, the reader experiences the making of one of the world’s iconic textile creations, the struggles of commoners during this prolonged era of deprivation, and the contrast between their lives and those of the aristocrats that cross their paths.
The modern narrative focuses upon a bequest made to Heather Mackenzie by her grandmother, a parcel of exquisite embroidered and beaded flowers. Her Nan had emigrated to Toronto from London in 1947, but since she had never mentioned embroidery to Heather, what was the purpose of the bequest? Her attempts to solve this mystery lead her to England and France, where she will serendipitously encounter Miriam Dassin, who had worked alongside Heather’s grandmother at Hartnell for a brief time.
Friendship, family, romance, struggle, betrayal, and glamour all coexist in the pages of The Gown, which is well worth reading by those with an interest in textiles, history, WWII, and the endless ways in which humans can make lemonade when life hands them a lemon.