We almost all of us know how the story of the pink suit ends – its wearer covered in blood, screaming next to the dying body of her husband, the president of the United States of America.
In The Pink Suit, Nicole Mary Kelby presents a fictionalised (although based on some facts) version of the run up to that day in Dallas, through the eyes of Kate, a young seamstress at Chez Ninon, Jackie Kennedy’s chosen tailors.
From the rooms of Chez Ninon, through fabric and patterns and sewing techniques, we read as the pink suit is made and worn. And travelling along its path is Kate, stitching not just seams in a skirt and jacket, but also the seams of her life as an Irish immigrant in New York City.
The Pink Suit takes an iconic outfit, and fills in gaps I never knew I had about how it came to be. Kelby’s depiction of the battles to get the suit made – the back and forth with Chanel, the struggles of such a difficult if beautiful fabric, the intricate hand sewing required – is detailed and fascinating, opening a window to history that most people forget exists.
Of course, while the making of the suit is central to the story, its creation is also a metaphor for Kate’s life – cut from foreign cloth, headed to America to become part of the American Dream, moulded to expectations, finally worn comfortably as a challenge to others. As Kate’s life comes together, and as she falls in love, the suit starts to move with her, rather than the other way round.
Kelby’s novel takes unexpected twists and turns. While the First Lady is central to the plot of the suit, she’s never (by my memory) referred to by name. The White House is nearly always called Maison Blanc, adding a slight air of unreality to proceedings, which is only heightened by Kelby’s depictions of the owners of Chez Ninon, two slightly mad old ladies who love fashion but seem to live in a dream world (although they can be pretty perceptive at times). And that day in Dallas is handled so differently from how I thought it would be, which came as a pleasant surprise.
Every chapter of The Pink Suit kicks off with a quote about fashion from one of a number of influential people in the business. While the quotes are about clothing and looks, many are also about the strength of people and inner beauty helping to create fashion. They added a lovely element to the book, as well as showcasing that fashion is more than just about clothes.
The Pink Suit is a beautiful novel, as beautiful as the object of its title. Its pieces – the fashion quotes, the sections on dressmaking, the story of Kate, our knowledge of the Kennedys – come together to form a deceptively simple novel, which fits together perfectly, with no sign of visible seams.
How I got this book: From the publisher, Virago. This did not affect my review.