Book Review: The Thoughtful Dresser

I’m thrilled to announce that Robin Abrahams has agreed to become a regular Already Pretty contributor! Robin will be reviewing style- and fashion-related books for us, so please let us know if you have a title you’d like reviewed. You can read more about Robin in her short bio below, and find out more on the contributor page here.

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I wanted to like “The Thoughtful Dresser” so much more than I did, that its very flaws pointed up its main excellence: This is a book that promotes conversation.

In my case, that conversation was often an imagined one as I argued the author out of a broad generalization here, urged her to do a bit more library digging there, and asked her, quite sternly, if she was really looking hard enough for the attractive yet arch-supporting flats that she claims do not exist. However, “The Thoughtful Dresser” could make an excellent choice for a book group or class. The book started as a blog, and its collaborative origins are still evident.

Ms. Grant’s central thesis, that fashion does too matter, is defended at too much length—no one who seriously believes otherwise is going to read a book on it to begin with. Beyond that, the book lacks focus, sort of like an outfit that ought to have worked, comprised of all your favorite pieces, which nonetheless underwhelms in toto.

“The Thoughtful Dresser” is at its best when examining the history of fashion, and particular the interplay of history and the individual life, as expressed in that individual’s clothing choices. Ms. Grant connects the rise of the department store to women’s increased physical mobility and economic independence; explains why Dior’s “New Look” was called that when it was Chanel, not Dior, who truly created a new silhouette and philosophy; and explains the feminist cred of the handbag. A woman confined to the home—a woman who had no money of her own—a woman who is too respectable to paint her face had no need of a handbag to carry keys, a wallet, lipstick: “For late nineteenth-century women, the handbag must have seemed as revolutionary a gadget as the Sony Walkman.”

It’s insights like these that make me want to see the book discussed among groups of women, particularly across generations. Because honestly, what looks less liberating and cool than your mother’s handbag (except, perhaps, her Sony Walkman)? The clothing and technology (because clothing is, after all, a form of technology) of one generation develop entirely new meanings, uses, connotations for the next. And what about the unfortunate women who are born into the wrong era? Imagine a Depression-era girl dreaming of the day her chintzy wardrobe might be replaced by something plush and prosperous—only to hit middle age in the brutally youth-oriented ’60s.

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If you’re picturing that girl as a young Joan Holloway, you might be on to something. “Mad Men” season six begins next month. Part of the reason I think Ms. Grant overstates her case that fashion is considered beneath notice is because of “Mad Men,” and the impact that its semiotic use of clothing has had on pop culture. Fans of the show might find that “The Thoughtful Dresser” makes excellent run-up reading. Multi-media book-and-TV-show club, anyone?

“Mad Men” image courtesy AMC

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Already Pretty contributor Robin Abrahams writes the Miss Conduct social-advice column in the Boston Globe. (Got a question? Send it in to missconduct@globe.com!) Robin has a PhD in research psychology and is married to Marc Abrahams, creator of the Ig Nobel Prizes.

  • Anna

    Even though I probably won’t read the book, I was intrigued by the historical information about handbags — not needed in earlier days because women didn’t have their own money and were usually confined to the home.

    Immediately I thought of my late beloved maiden aunt, born in 1900, who worked in an office for most of her adult life and certainly did carry a handbag to contain her money, compact and lipstick, lists, etc. A modern woman of her generation, she nevertheless persisted in referring to her handbag by the quaint term “reticule.” It always cracked me up.

    • Mandy

      Too funny – love the word “reticule.”

      I always thought it was odd that my grandma, born in 1916, referred to her handbag as a “pocket-book,” especially since that was the same exact term my grandpa (her husband) used for his wallet.

  • Copy Czarina

    For me, the most interesting part of this book was reading about Catherine Hill, the Auschwitz survivor who founded Catherines specialty shops in Canada.

    Great point about women born in the wrong fashion era; I’ve often felt that about myself. I have some beautiful photos of my mother (born in 1923) as a young woman in Lauren Bacall suits–but she hit middle age in the horrible 1970s and 1980s.

  • http://www.eudoxiafriday.wordpress.com Eudoxia

    Oh, I really liked this book! Found it in the library last year and found it compelling. Like Copy Czarina, one of the most interesting parts for me was reading about Catherine Hill – and (as you point out) the history of fashion bits linking fashion to women’s role in society were great.

    “Ms. Grant’s central thesis, that fashion does too matter, is defended at too much length—no one who seriously believes otherwise is going to read a book on it to begin with. ”

    I disagree with this, actually. I don’t really believe that fashion matters (yes, I read this blog, but more for the body image and self-esteem side of things). But I came across this book in the library and was willing to engage with Grant’s ideas. I still hold pretty much the same views about fashion as previously, but I found it an interesting and thoughtful read.