Few garments have come to define a moment in history as the pink Chanel suit that Jackie Kennedy wore on that fateful November day in 1963. That bright suit and its accompanying pillbox hat immediately conjures up tragedy – and strength.
Author Nicole Mary Kelby takes this iconic suit and builds a delicate and beautiful tale with it at the center, told, not from the viewpoint of “the Wife”, but through the lives of the people who designed and constructed it. Specifically, this is the story of Kate, a young Irish immigrant and talented seamstress who is employed by the famed New York fashion boutique Chez Ninon. While the idiosyncratic Ladies who own the exclusive dress shop of Chez Ninon are the ones who obtain the license to recreate the original Chanel design (so the garment could be declared to be American), it is Kate and the girls in the “back room” who work with the intricate pieces, the meticulous processes and the delicate fabrics to not only create the pink suit, but many other garments for blue blood clients.
It’s lovely getting a glimpse inside the most deeply entrenched bastions of American fashion (and this is a true depiction; many of these places and people are real, if fictionalized). The appreciation of the people who come to live in these pages – the trendsetters, the taste masters, the fitters, the stitchers, all those who could be considered auteurs in their own right – is deftly conveyed by Ms. Kelby. We are ushered directly into the fashion world, and it’s glorious.
But this is not just a tale of the foibles and fantastical efforts of the New York fashion district, it is a slice of New York itself in the 1960s, home to hundreds of Irish immigrants who refused to leave the Old Country behind even as they chased the American Dream. Good Catholic boys and girls, who still drank dark beer and ate fish on Fridays. Those good sons and daughters of Ireland who still expected their butchers to stock both white and black puddings at Christmastime and who sang the old songs in both apartments and bars.
The Pink Suit is also a love story. It’s the story of the love of a woman for the work of her hands, the love of a daughter for family and home, the love of an artist for all things that are beautiful. And it’s also the story of a butcher with a poet’s heart and his love for a red haired girl from County Cork.
This is such a lovely book. It does not take time to philosophize or draw conclusions about a time when history twisted. It does not need to speak pontifically of truths or morals, or teach us lessons about our past or our dreams. It does not hold sudden twists meant to stimulate, other than those which happen in any given life at any given time. It unfolds simply, with a clarity and loveliness that is a part of an everyday life for an everyday person – understanding that no one, in their own minds and hearts, are everyday people. We all have depth, we all have levels; we all live with or chafe against truth and morals, and we all are bound by our past and strive for our dreams. All of us.
The Pink Suit is a novel about all these things, simply presented, lovingly told: of hope and of heartbreak, of beauty and privilege, of homesickness and of a search for love – which is not always a person, but sometimes is found in the perfection of one’s skill and of one’s art, and which can be realized in the exquisite execution of one lovely, one stunning, one perfect pink suit. One that, caught up in triumph and tragedy, now lives for the ages.