My mother’s wedding dress, the one she wore when she married my father, hangs in my closet, It is a creamy yellow-white, off the shoulders with a friendly young lace around the arms. It’s almost as though it was made for a sweet sixteen or southern cotillion, some tradition naïve and long since frown out of. I’m not sure what to do with my mother’s wedding dress, or with Justine Picardie’s book of the same name. Both share a dilemma that makes it difficult to determine whether they’re treasures or trash. Both take up space with an irrelevance that is unable to effect the heart-hurt which prevents me from dealing with them promptly and pragmatically.
Justine Picardie, author of this flimsy, fascinating non-fiction, is also a columnist, novelist, and formerly the features editor of British Vogue. My Mother’s Wedding Dress, the book, hangs with the pomp that frequently irritates me in mainstream fashion magazines like Vogue, and is a reason I don’t read them much. Often, it’s the suffocating sound of timelessness, ritual, and deep solemn value draped around expensive and exclusive commercial culture that bugs and alienates me. Fortunately Picardie’s book about her mother’s short black wedding dress and other frocks and accessories from life, fiction, and history also crackles sweetly with sincerity and a frequently winning sense of humour.
It’s difficult to critique her for giving in to the sense that clothes haunt our conscious and unconscious memories. Clothes are there when the fire is lit, when the marriage goes under, when the rebellion starts. This writer can’t seem to escape the paradox that while they are not important at all, they are crucial at the same time.
My own mother’s wedding dress, her first, may just be a sad dusty remnant of a failed youthful love, or it might be an anchor to my own existence: I am the one good thing that relationship wrought, they agree. So maybe I keep the dress alongside stacks of other memorable unwearables out of loyalty? There is certainly no logic to the closet space I let it take up, except as evidence in defense of my own life’s worth against all the anger and embarrassment of two kids who married and divorced before they finished college, with a baby left between them when the dust settled. This dress agrees that yes, there are no mistakes; yes, yes, it was all for the best. It’s these tangents of self-in-clothes that Picardie’s book is about, and if you don’t need more, it’s enough. Unless it isn’t.
Other reviewers have very accurately pointed out that the research in this volume is slim at best. If she had wanted more information, that information was available. She could have gone to find it. Rather, she wanders, deliberately bemused and questioning, in order to keep the book full of missing, lost, and unknown things. Some reviewers, writers who share Worn’s passion for facts and serious research into fashion, have even called the book disgraceful. And it does do a disservice to fibre and fashion history by not stretching for perspectives beyond the bubble of the author’s personal experience. Her world is one in which politics, history, and facts all bend and reflect against the surface of oneself, rather than extending and triangulating outward to give us a truer sense of the shapes of things. But still. There is another kind of value here, and every time I delve into the book to find the bits that bothered me, I find I am also drawn into things that don’t quite connect, but resonate.
Picardie references traces of clothes in literature, not-quite reflections of her most personal and painful experiences, and then foils them at the end of each chapter with odd, funny, poignant lists about fashion. These dos and don’ts are as subjective and personalized as the rest of the story; (ir)relevant, enjoyable, occasionally irritatingly frivolous but completely relatable. This sense of relation, of being related to a stranger encountered in text, is the positive side of the bubbly subject effect, and maybe writing that aims for this and achieves it shouldn’t be critiqued for not being something else. The book is as silly as a dress, an emotional matrix that’s far from an objective analysis of anything. For lovers of editorial and first person narrative, and the true, painful, artful lives of “great” designers and models, this book will be an indulgent pleasure. It’s not a comprehensive anything but, instead, offers many little vents and slits and windows into the questions and worlds that inhabit our clothing.
Picardie’s book is not good historical materialism. It’s not good research, or concrete theory either, but it makes sense to me. It is about doubt rather than proof. It is a kind of trauma writing, suggesting again and again that whole worlds might exist beyond reason, hard facts, and rational lines. Picardie wants this badly enough to leave the edges of her thought raw and unfinished, and reaches for it as she reachers for her sister, her mother, all the people who have died or grown up and made life sometimes seem a little sad and empty in their passing, like a uniform discarded… Or my mother’s wedding dress.
by Justine Picardie, Harper Collins Canada, 2006
reviewed by Risa Dickens (originally published in Worn Fashion Journal Issue 6)