I'm a dress historian, so I adore reading books that feature clothes, as well as writing books about clothes.  If you are a fashion fan or vintage devotee you may enjoy stories about dressmakers, storytelling from textiles, or even about the industrial side of the clothing industry.  Every garment tells a story, whether it’s from the past or from our own crowded wardrobes.  Sometimes we know what this story may be, and sometimes we need fiction writers to speculate…

Lucy Adlington

Lucy Adlington

I’ve indulged in my love of fashion history writing a 1940s novel The Red Ribbon. Here are few of my favourite books that feature clothes, as well as some which are on my towering To Read pile.  Enjoy!

Mrs ‘Arris Goes to Paris – Paul Gallico (1958)

This book is top of the list. It sparkles with charm and warmth and it’s a treat if you love the 1950s. Simple-hearted char lady Mrs Harris sets her heart on a seemingly impossible dream – to own a Dior gown of her own.  What an aspiration! How can she possibly save up enough money from her humble cleaning job?  And, should the impossible happen, and Mrs Harris makes it to Paris, how will share fare in the haughty world of haute couture?  The book was such a sweet success it inspired Gallico to write several sequels. This is the true gem.

Some Girls Some Hats and Hitler – Trudi Kanter (1984)

This book isn’t fiction, I know, but it reads like a glorious, thrilling romance novel.  Viennese milliner Trudi adores her life and work in 1930s Vienna.  She thrives on the indulgent café culture, savouring every sip of quality coffee, every mouthful of cream cake… and any number of handsome young men.  You can still see the site of her millinery boutique in Vienna’s fashionable shopping district. Trudi herself finds her lifestyle and, indeed, her life under threat as the Nazis march into her city. Can she and her handsome lover Walter escape to London with the help of her milliner friend Mitzi? Dare I hint at something of a happy ending…?

Diana of Dobsons – Cicely Hamilton (1908)

Diana is a spirited shop assistant in an Edwardian department store in Clapham. Not for her the beauty of Belle Epoque ensembles, or the leisure of her wealthy clients. The author, Cicely Hamilton, was a committed suffragist before, during and after World War One, and immensely popular playwright.  More likely to wear warm cardigans than couture gowns Hamilton understood only too well the darker side of fashion. Following an unexpected windfall Diana heads for the high life in Switzerland, but hardship and poverty follow. Courage and friendship eventually help her face a brighter future.

Northanger Abbey – Jane Austen (1817)

Frankly, who needs an excuse to read and re-read Jane Austen? I’ve picked Northanger Abbey for frock lovers because it features delightful details of visiting Bath for fashion and flirtation. Shopping was one of Austen’s favourite pastimes, even though she found Bath grotty and crowded.  Famously, the young hero Henry Tilney reveals himself to be savvy about dress trends too. If this novel gives you a craving for the Regency era, try Austen’s letters next. They are sprinkled with insights into Regency bargain-hunting and wardrobe renovations, all described in Austen’s wickedly ironic style.

A Woman of Substance – Barbara Taylor Bradford (1979)

Did you know Yorkshire was once famous for its textile mills?  Most are now repurposed but this impassioned and epic novel spans the glory years of the fabric trade, beginning in the Edwardian era as fiercely ambitious Emma Harte (skivvy in a gloomy mansion) vows to be the richest woman in the north. She sews and schemes with determined flair and intelligence until she owns sumptuous department stores which stock her own fashion designs. Of course, all that glitters is not golden. First published in 1979, the power of this rags-to-riches story still endures. Perfect for fans of Dynasty and Dallas.

Murder on the Orient Express – Agatha Christie (1934)

Crime devotees may already know that Agatha Christie features clothes and accessories as crucial plot points (or red herrings).  Her novels from the Golden Age of crime are a great insight into a Golden Age of fashion – think, Art Deco meets country tweed.  In this 1934 Hercule Poirot mystery an alluring figure has been seen near the scene of a murder, wearing a scarlet silk kimono with a dragon design. Key passengers on the Venice-Simplon train have their luggage searched and their dressing gowns scrutinised.  If you don’t yet know whodunnit, climb aboard this cunning book and read on…

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day - Winifred Watson (1937)

Miss Watson, a Northern office worker writing in the 1930s, seems an unlikely creator of this frothy, intoxicating romantic romp. And yet she clearly has a marvellous time concocting fun and frolics for her down-and-out heroine Miss Pettigrew, who accidentally finds herself a ladies maid to butterfly-brained singer Delysia LaFosse. The book was a forgotten classic for far too long, then made into a visual feast of a film starring Frances McDormand and Amy Adams, with exquisite costumes.  As you read, imagine yourself in a bias-cut gown, drinking champagne to the sound of a night club big band.

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë (1847)

Jane Eyre is one of those classic novels which gives something new each time you read it.  There are plentiful references to clothes throughout the book, all giving insight into characters and emotions.  While early Victorian fashions seem demure and restraining they, like Jane’s calm exterior, can hide passionate souls.  From Jane’s drab school uniform, to the ravaged lace of her wedding veil, clothes show mood… and madness.  I particularly like Jane’s adoption of black and grey for daily wear. Seemingly sensible, it actually becomes a colour of possibility and quality, in contrast to the peacock colours of more gaudy characters. Add a brooding Mr Rochester and you’ve all the elements for intelligent escapism.

The Seamstress – Maria Duenas and Daniel Hahn (2012)

I confess, this is one of the titles I’ve yet to read and I am very much looking forward to immersing myself in 1930s Madrid life. It promises to be a tale of tragedy, adventure love and war.  The backdrop is the civil war in Spain, an era which literature has often overlooked. The heroine, Sira Quiroga, is a child apprentice to a Madrid dressmaker with a passionate future ahead of her. The impact of this war on Spanish women’s lives was immense and it took many years for the Spanish fashion industry to assert itself as a major force worldwide.

The Dress Thief – Natalie Meg Evans (2014)

A heroine who steals from the fashion houses she adores? Now here’s a plot to draw a reader in. We are treated to an imaginative blend of history and fiction in 1930s Paris, with commendable emphasis on female couturiers who did so much to make 20th century Paris a power-house of top-quality fashion design.  Clothes feature prominently, woven with mystery and good old-fashioned romance.

The Red Ribbon by Lucy Adlington will be published on 21 September (Hot Key, Hardback/eBook, £12.99)