The Dress by Kate Kerrigan

Head of Zeus

The enormous strides made in technology, communication and class are bound tightly in this novel, which spans 80 years and three generations. That it’s fashion, the love of it, the necessity of it, the worth of it that is the lynchpin of the tale is a point to note – the movers and shakers of 1950s New York high society, one-upping each other with the latest fads are put in contrast to the retro lovers of modern day London. Both camps lusting after the materialistic high the gowns afford them for different, but equally as compelling reasons.

Lily Fitzpatrick is a successful fashion blogger and stylist in London, with thousands of subscribers and a tireless Instagram feed, documenting her every sartorial move. Specialising in her passion – vintage pieces – she stumbles across an article featuring a woman who shares her surname, a Joy Fitzpatrick, who was the darling of the New York social scene in the lateDress 50s. Joy was a startling beauty and a clear style maven, and what interests Lily initially is the magnificent dress Joy is known to have commissioned to mark her 30th birthday, and the possible connection the two women may share. She knows little about her recent ancestry; her beloved granddad moved from Mayo to London as soon as he was old enough to, and what’s known about his older brother Frank is very patchy. We know through the stylistic device of the author that Frank worked his way through the building sites of Dublin to New York and became a self-made magnate, and that fate sealed him to debutante Joy shortly after her 21st birthday. Lily’s enthusiasm for fashion may not be directly inherited from her great-aunt, but the shared flair for style is a connection that uncovers the ups and downs, secrets and lies of a family line shrouded in well contained scandal.

Writer Kate Kerrigan has spun a tale of glamour and intrigue, which will appeal to a great many fashion magpies, style lovers and fans of a good love story. Although romantic to the point of cliche it’s not frothy, and the author isn’t afraid to deal with issues not often found in a book of this sort, like physical abuse, emigration and betrayal amongst friends. Joy’s alcoholism is well drawn, and her failings are portrayed unflinchingly. That’s not to say it doesn’t slip into formulaic territory once too often; a suitor with an unrequited interest in Lily is unsurprisingly perfect for her and her best friend is a broad character the likes of which has appeared in one guise or another a million times before.

There’s also a beauty-worship that grows tired; both Lily and Joy (and seamstress Honor, whose role, and her connection to the family, becomes more apparent as the novel goes on) are gorgeous in their own different ways, Joy as a glacially TeaPotcharming Hitchcockian fantasy, Lily as a uniquely presented anomaly on the London fashion scene. I shouldn’t have been too surprised by the over-attention to detail given to the more stylistic elements, considering the very nature of the book and to whom it’s being marketed, but every nuance is spelled out laboriously (at one stage Lily “made herself a pot of strong tea from her favourite art-deco teapot, [and] pulled on her silk 1920s robe”) leaving little to the imagination, which I found trying and sometimes irritating.

Any fashion lover would get something out of The Dress. Lily’s outings to fashion shows, her styling gigs and her use of social media to assert herself in the industry is placed in interesting contrast to Honor’s beginnings as a gifted seamstress, apprenticing in Irish designer Sybil Connolly’s atelier in Dublin and then finding herself in a couturier in New York. The story jumps a number of years in the 50s to present day 2014, and for one reason or another the New York story is told more delicately and with better pacing than the somewhat grating, far too materialistic world of 2014 London. Saying that, one can sense a genuine appreciation from the author and her characters for the craftsmanship and artistry that goes into a couture dress that’s often overlooked in this age of fast fashion, and while the narrative sometimes doesn’t flow as smoothly as it could, The Dress is still an engaging, glamorous read with more depth than might have been pre-conceived, that wouldn’t look out of place on any fashionista’s art-deco coffee table.

  • Aoife B. Burke
  • First published in The Tuam Herald on 09 September 2015

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