Fashion and Identity: A Review of Linda Grant's The Thoughtful Dresser

by Jagari Mukherjee
(Kolkata, West Bengal, India)

Linda Grant’s The Thoughtful Dresser: The Art of Adornment, the Pleasures of Shopping, and Why Clothes Matter (2009) is a work of non-fiction that examines our relationship with clothes, fashion, and shopping. Rather than propounding a cut-and-dried theory of fashion, the very soul of this piece lies in its human-interest stories. The book opens with a poignant moment when the author sees a red high-heeled shoe at Auschwitz museum. The shoes belonged to a prisoner who died at the Auschwitz concentration camp. Grant tries to imagine her identity, and thus leads us into the subsequent chapters. Clothes are about one’s identity and self-expression at various stages of life.

Grant attributes her own interest in fashion to the fact that her mother loved to shop for stylish clothes and handbags, and that her grandparents, who were immigrants, strove to dress like Londoners. This enabled them to forge a new identity in an alien land. Another interesting story is that of Catherine Hill, a holocaust survivor who was determined to put her past behind her and went on to own a designer store called Chez Catherine. The book also gives a nudge to the history of fashion, particularly the era before and after the Second World War. The Thoughtful Dresser makes for a compelling read – breezy at places, painful at times. There are tantalizing glimpses into quaint, charming shops selling dresses, and a particularly delightful chapter towards the end that provides a list of lovely, sumptuous handbags owned by the author’s mother, to which the author adds her own designer collection. There are interesting bits of information throughout – for instance, handbags emerged after ‘respectable’ women took to tramping the streets in pursuit of work and leisure.

Although the book is a work of non-fiction, the author vividly brings to life the characters that populate her human-interest stories. Even minor characters linger long in the mind after we have finished reading: the shy undergraduate student who is enamored of the author’s black sweater with turquoise sparkles; the anonymous diarist (author of the memoir A Woman in Berlin), who, a day after being raped by soldiers, walks twelve miles in search of nettles to eat, and then visits the hairdresser; the author’s shopaholic friend with a passion for designer clothes. Many of Grant’s ‘characters’ are non-human and symbolic – the beautiful pink suede shoes that the author once owns and later loses, a colorful Marimekko dress that binds a mother and her daughter beyond death, and a second-hand shop named Joe’s Old Clothes, that smells of sweat, dust, and grime, and yet contains rare sartorial treasures.

The Thoughtful Dresser has its shades and hours of darkness. Apart from the constant references to the Second World War, there are sections describing fashion after 9/11, nightclubs in Thailand, and a detailed description of the custom of foot-binding that is sheer torture even on paper. The discerning reader cannot miss the whiff of popular feminism permeating the pages. There are humorous instances where the author chides men for belittling women who like shopping, when the men themselves have such ‘important’ preoccupations like “moving balls from one end of a football field to the other with the aid of a human foot.”

I would recommend this book to all my friends who have an interest in history and fashion. In The Thoughtful Dresser, Linda Grant has concocted a warm punch laced with dark chocolate.

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