Publication date: April 29th 2014
The pink suit is both the description of the outfit worn by Jacqueline Kennedy when her husband was assassinated and the name of Nicole Mary Kelby’s new novel, The Pink Suit. The novel traces the history of the infamous suit, but Kelby goes beyond that to seamlessly weave a story behind the facts. Kate is a young Irish immigrant whose sewing is of such high quality that she works in the famous Chez Ninon salon where ladies of consequence come to get Parisian designs copied. At the time Kate is working there, their most famous and secretive client is Jackie Kennedy, who is still reeling from the vicious press attacks about the money she spends on her wardrobe and the fact that she wears mostly French designers. With the help of the salon’s owners she is able to purchase copies made of other designers’ clothes. They go to the Paris shows and come back to have their designer and seamstresses make copies of the couture looks, allowing Mrs. Kennedy to wear American-made clothes but still exuding the style she prefers.
The truth remains hidden until 1961 when, at age 78, Coco Chanel comes out of retirement and shows her latest creation, the suit—the suit that would become the little black dress for day. The first lady desperately wants one but with her recent debacle in the press she is hesitant until the President decides she should have it. Negotiations begin between Chez Ninon and the house of Chanel because although this will be an American-made suit it cannot happen without Chanel’s approval, right down to the buttons and trim. Then there are the negotiations with Chanel herself to ensure the suit meets her standards even though it will never be labeled a Chanel suit. These standards include:
The lining must first be quilted to the fabric before it was cut. Then there were the buttonholes. To be Chanel, they had to be sewn twice…twenty stitches per inch at the beginning and end of each seam and twelve stitches per inch everywhere else.
meaning the jacket alone will take ninety hours to construct—all of it requiring hand sewing of a fabric notoriously temperamental:
The boucle did not just shed, it came undone. Boucle means “to curl” in French, and so the soft wool curled and snagged even after they had the yardage dry-cleaned. It was imprudent in its color and insolent in its impossible weave, and every time scissors were sharpened and then taken to it, puffs of the cloth floated like dandelions in the wind.
This level of detail is fascinating to anyone interested in fashion and especially, couture fashion—a dying genre being replaced by quick and cheap clothes made in Asian factories. Beyond this expertise Kelby touches on the more intimate aspects of couture, the relationship between the client and the person who must know every aspect of their form, bones and musculature in order to make creations that look the way Jackie Kennedy looked. It does not happen easily and is all the more amazing given that as a backroom sewer Kate is never allowed to meet the woman herself.
Kelby’s previous novel, White Truffles, is a powerful and passionate novel with dramatic highs and lows mixed into the everyday moments of life. The Pink Suit is a very different work in its feel. It is imbued with a sadness that comes not just from knowing where this lustrous, beautiful suit will end up and what it will witness but because of Kate’s life—or lack thereof. She lives to see photographs of her work being worn by the First Lady, even if she gets no credit. She works long hours for little pay and has no personal life but the glamour of the fashion world and the First Lady’s life beckon her away from a traditional life. At the same time she longs for her home in Ireland and to see her father again. There is pressure to marry and settle down but to become the wife of a butcher and work in his shop means an end to her dreams.
In the same way that Kate stitches together her garments with precise, tiny stitches so does Kelby construct The Pink Suit. Without extra embellishment and frills she conveys so much emotion it is impossible not to feel Kate’s confusion. The fabric of the times pulls her in two directions—one, to take another job where her work will be acknowledged as hers and two, to go with a more conventional life. Ultimately, events show her her path and remind her that for all its beauty, a pink suit, no matter how carefully created, does not guarantee happiness.