Review: The Thoughtful Dresser by Linda Grant

A wonderful journey through our relationship with clothes.

Thoughtful dresserI’m currently on my second trip through The Thoughtful Dresser. Although not a new book – it was published in 2009 – I only caught up with recently and found it so fascinating that I read it through almost in one sitting. Having put it aside for a few weeks, I’m now ploughing through it again.

This is not a scholarly book: Grant, who is an award-winning novelist, not a journalist, is simply fascinated by clothes and decided to write about them. She runs a blog at The Thoughtful Dresser, in between writing novels. In this book she dips and dives in and out of many issues, touching most lightly and moving on. They include misogyny, the importance of pleasure, the difference between feeling sexy and looking sexy (worth a read for any woman who’s ever dressed up in stocking and suspenders for someone else’s benefit and felt completely turned off by it), the great designers, Auschwitz, the difference between pride in one’s appearance and ‘vanity’, WHY clothes matter, why they don’t, the primitive, unending search for the new. 

It is not a how-to book or a style book, but a book about clothing and why this woman – and others – wears it and has worn it and will wear it. It was sparked off by the sight of a red shoe – the kind of shoe that you or I might wear – atop a pile of anonymous shoes in Auschwitz. Grant, herself of Jewish extraction, knows all too well what that shoe means.

There were many lightbulb moments for me, and moments of, as one Amazon review put it, ‘delighted recognition’, and it is also very funny and beautifully written.

"In the summer of 1971, I had perfect shoes. They were pink suede wedges with suede ties that did up roud my ankles like Grecian sandals. They were the most beautiful shoes I have ever owned, and I was 20 and had no idea that in all the years to come I would forever be trying to find their replacement, as if they were a love tragically lost, or the Platonic iidel of shoes, or the shoes God had made specially for me…

"I wore the shoes every single day, until they fell apart and I dropped them in the kitchen bin in an act of affirmative confidence in the future: that I was only 20 and that for the rest of my long life there would be other shoes – the next pair of shoes – but there was no next pair of shoes…"

Who among us hasn’t encountered that same feeling? How I long to have back the cream angora sweater I bought in 1982, later dyed pink and then discarded; the pink mohair 1950s coat; the jade Pringle sweaterdress with the pointelle collar; the deep green mohair velvet swing coat that I loved so much and my boyfriend so detested that he binned it one day when I was at work. I wil never see their like again.

I felt similar recognition from her description of old photographs: that in them, even if she cannot remember the occasion, the people, or what they were all laughing at, she has never forgotten the clothes that she is wearing.

Recently, I was going through some old college photographs and found one of a bunch of us laughing hard into the camera. I vaguely remember the occasion (I had just told a joke) and with a struggle, I can remember some of the names: Sandie, Rosie, maybe a Nicky? and her friend, whose identity escapes me. But as if under my hand right now I remember the scratchy acrylic sweater that I am wearing in that photograph. And the orange polycotton cowboy shirt whose collar is visible under it. And the smell of that shirt, freshly ironed, hanging in the laundry room at College Hall, Malet Street, in 1982. And although it is not in the photograph, I also know that on my lower half I am wearing my pale green straight-leg jeans, the first I had owned as an adult, and one of the only two pairs I had when I went away to university. And my white Converse sneakers that pushed my Achilles tendon out of joint. 

Clothes are odd things. We wear them next to our bodies, in an intimate embrace. They matter. And anyone who is interested in them will find rewards in this book. 

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