The Pink Suit
Nicole Mary Kelby
Little, Brown and Company
Publication Date: April 29, 2014
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: despite being stained by the blood of her assassinated husband, Jackie insisted upon wearing the suit hours later as Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as President of the United States. According to witnesses, when Lady Bird Johnson asked if Jackie wanted to change her outfit, she replied, “No, I want them to see what they have done to Jack.”
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 the ” Maison Blanche”, and their other society and blue blood clients, as well.
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) – not only the demands and expectations, but the sensibilities and sensitivities, as well. The appreciation of the people who come to live in these pages – the trendsetters, the taste masters, the fitters, the stichers, all those who could be considered auteurs in their own right – is so very deftly conveyed by Ms. Kelby. We are ushered directly into the fashion world, and it’s glorious.
Chez Ninon worked with Linton’s bouclé on a regular basis, but this particular yardage was reckless, improbable, and not merely pink but a tweed of pinks – it was ripe raspberry and sweet watermelon and cherry blossom running through an undercurrent of pink champagne. In full light, it reminded Kate of Japanese peonies blooming in the winter: the iridescence was intense but fleeting. It was like the memory of roses; it was the kind of pink that only the heart could understand.
But this is not just a tale of the foibles and fantastical efforts of the New York fashion district, it is a slice of history of 1960s New York itself, of the Inwood neighborhood, 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 drink dark beer reminiscent of Murphy’s (pints for the men and halfies for the ladies) and eat fish on Fridays. Who still attend mass at the Good Shepherd where Father John presides – he who had once been a famed Cork Gaelic footballer so had come to know “both God and greatness”. Those good sons and daughters of Ireland who still expect their butchers to stock both white and black puddings at Christmastime and sing the old songs in both apartments and bars. Yet this is America, and it is brash and it is loud and it is opportunity – but it has yet to fully become “home”.
The stars were not shy about shining, and so the ride was quite lovely. The street was quiet; not many families had cars. Only the occasional bus passed them – delivery trucks were done for the day. Driving in the open car at night made Kate feel like a tourist in her own neighborhood. She’d never realized how many shops there were. Some flew Irish flags. Some had windows painted with leprechauns and shamrocks. They were all Irish, in a postcard sort of way. They were not like the great, dark sea of her youth, or the smoky peat air after a winter’s rain, or her father, with his wide, red face and booming laugh.
And The Pink Suit is also a love story. Not a white hot love story, not one that burns or even smolders, but one that warms from within. 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 the red haired girl from County Cork. The courtship between Kate and Patrick Harris is sweet and heart wrenching and so very real; he admires the depth of her skills and sensibilities and returns them with an understanding and dedication to his own calling, but while she rhapsodizes from her own heart, he listens and responds to her, and quotes Yeats and loves her for who she is as well as for where she came from.
“It’s not just wool or sheep’s hair – as you said. It has life,” Kate said, and began to turn the bouclé to catch the light, as if it were a prism. “Every fabric has a voice. When you rub your hand quickly along it, you can hear its music. But it’s not just the threads that sing; it’s the life behind them. It’s the song of those who tend the sheep and those who shear them, of those who dream in shades of cherry blossoms and shooting stars, and through alchemy and mathematics weave grace. It’s the song of those who warp and weave and darn; it’s the song of their lives, too. Because part of their lives, part of all their lives, was spent making something of such audacious beauty that it can nearly make the heart stop.”
Kate was on the verge of tears.
“If pink would be thunder,” Patrick said, “it would look like this.”
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 delve into a myriad of levels of understanding, or speak pontifically of truths or morals, or teach us lessons about our past or our dreams. It does not hold sudden surprises or twists of plot meant to stimulate, other than those which happen in any given life at any given time for better and for worse. It simply unfolds 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.