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on 31 March 2009
'The Thoughtful Dresser' by Linda Grant

Novelist Linda Grant doesn't claim to be a stylist or even a fashion buff. What she enjoys, she explains, are good clothes. And shoes. And handbags.

So what she has set out to do in her new book is to explore why clothes are important - and why making an effort to think about how we dress is not wasted time.

This accessible - and in places very, very funny - book is not what you'd call a work of scholarly rigour, but Grant still manages to get across a number of messages with enjoyable ease.

She illustrates, with just a cursory look at the distant past, how humans have always cared about how they look - about how they present themselves, from the earliest adornments and tattoos. Which, as she points out, makes a nonsense of the view that fashion is only a product of capitalism and consumerism, and that shallow women are just manipulated into contemplating matters sartorial.

She also illustrates the inherent misogyny in the view that thinking or talking about clothes is an indicator of vapidity. Men base so many of their responses to women on how women look, and criticise them if they don't look `good', but also criticise the time they spend achieving that look.

As Grant points out, we have to wear clothes: a man begging on the street might have plenty of people pass by and ignore him. But if he's naked, the police will turn up pretty quickly and take him away. Clothes, in our society, are not an option. It might sound howlingly obvious, but if that's the case, why do some people consider it to be an indicator of a weak mind - or a capitalist plot - when people enjoy thinking about clothes, shopping and dressing?

Why, for instance, is shopping derided more than, say, watching football or playing dangerous sports or playing shoot-em-ups on a computer - or any other predominantly male form of pleasure?

Grant rails against clothing being limited to the strictly utilitarian, and peppers the book with anecdotes about her own mother - the daughter of immigrants - who understood the way clothing could be used to help fit in. And there is a series of interviews with Canadian style doyen Catherine Hill, an Auschwitz survivor whose teenage life was possibly saved by a moment of old-fashioned, female vanity.

The point that, in the 19th century, department stores were a new and liberating place for women, where they could go unchaperoned, is made too. And how new designs (by designers, thus stressing the importance of designers) for shoes and dresses also helped in the process of liberating women (from corsets etc).

We read how Coco Chanel created the timeless little black dress as long ago as 1926, and how, in the aftermath of WWII, women swooned for Christian Dior's beautiful New Look.

Grant is quite clear that fashion - in terms of the catwalks etc - is not `real' clothing, but a form of art, and every bit as valid as a painting or a piece of music. However, she also believes that our innate desire to look aesthetically good - to be attractive - is "irrational".

But that begs the question of whether art in general is irrational - indeed, whether it's irrational to consider aesthetics in anything that could be strictly utilitarian (architecture, for instance). And unless you think it is, then it's difficult to conclude that clothing should adhere to a different ethos.

Grant ends with the story of a single red, high-heeled, patent shoe that she spotted on the top of a display of shoes at Auschwitz, where they'd been stolen from owners who were mostly destined for the gas chamber.

She dares us to denigrate the unknown victim of the Holocaust who had worn or carried with her on that final journey, shoes that she loved.

And she leaves us with a challenge - to live and to make the most of it. Including in the enjoyment of what we wear.

This feels a little like Richard Dawkins's 'The God Delusion': as he was eventually provoked by fundamentalists into writing, so Grant has been poked with a stick by those (including women) who pour derision on others for taking care over what they wear.

And while it doesn't have quite the force of Dawkins's work, it's an enjoyable, interesting and welcome rebuttal to a particular attitude and critique.
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on 15 August 2009
I read this book in one evening and then immediately turned back to the beginning and read it again. Linda Grant articulates so many things about clothes and fashion that have floated around in my mind at one time or another, but that I've never thought to express. I can't remember the last time I enjoyed a book so much or felt such a sense of delighted recognition as I read. I've recommeded it to all my friends.

I loved the mix of fashion history, the stories of designers and Grant's reminiscences about clothes loved and lost. Ah, the perfect shoes, they come along so rarely...

Essential reading for all intelligent women who have ever been made to feel frivolous or guilty for caring about clothes. The story of Catherine Hill will put paid to that for once and for all. I can't wait for her book to be published.
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on 30 August 2011
I very much enjoyed this take on fashion and clothing, as written by a novelist rather than a journalist. Although I disagree with many of her conclusions (I believe in being highly ethical and ecologically responsible about clothing, above all), I recognised much of what she had to say - about the pleasure given by certain garments, about facing one's ageing self in the mirror, about carelessly discarding that perfect garment, not realising that you will never again find anything so lovely. I read this pretty much cover to cover in a single day, but plan to return to it soon and bookmark it. Recommended.
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on 1 March 2015
I found this book engrossing and bewildering in equal measure. It's an easy read and whilst I ageed with the cental premise of taking pleasure in life where you can and the indomitable human spirit I found it difficult to identify with the author. I like a well made outfit or a pretty dress but I am not so obsessed by clothes as to understand the writer's passion for them. I also disagreed with so many of her statements about women that I began to doubt myself. She says for example of all women "We are hardly ever naked. We almost never look at ourselves in the mirror undressed. At least not after the age of twenty. We don't know what we look like". Well I'm more than twenty years older than twenty and I know exactly what I look like because I see myself naked every day without any particular concern. Am I so strange? She goes onto say "When we set out to buy new clothes we are taking along not only an interest in fashion but also an internal hell of insecurity of self-loathing about a body that is to be clothed" - no we don't or at least I don't! Should I? The same with the high heeled shoe. I can see that a well made high heeled shoe might be a thing of beauty to look at but I also know I won't feel good wearing it. I will be grumpy and irritable because my mind will not be on anything interesting someone is saying or on what I am reading, seeing or working on but on the pain in my feet. I can't be alone in this surely? So all in all I found it an interesting insight into another woman's mind - one who actually likes shopping and buying things but I found it irritating that it claimed to speak for all women. Not me. Some of us take our pleasures in other things.
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on 14 December 2012
A friend lent me this book, and I loved it so mich I had to buy my own copy. That NEVER happens - but Linda Grant is a writer unlike most others. And I love clothes - reading about them is like vicarious clothes-shopping, without the sort feet and extraordinary bad temper.
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on 2 March 2011
This book should get 6 stars - it is one of the very few intelligent books about fashion, and also manages to be very witty. This is my absolute must-read book, even if you aren't that interested in clothes!
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on 9 February 2014
I could easily have read this in one sitting. I hung on every word. It sets changes in women's fashion into social and historical and social context but the love of her subject always shines through.
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on 16 January 2016
An interesting take on our fascination with clothing and fashion. I was particularly interested in the connection between Jewish Holocaust survivors and the importance of dress to human dignity.
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on 26 February 2010
This book looks at clothes from an unusual angle which appealed to me. A little weak in some areas but I think most women who are interested in clothes would enjoy most of it.
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on 28 August 2014
What an excellent and sensible book. Great reading. Buy it!
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