It starts with a lit­tle black dress

Fash­ion maven Jane L. Rosen ex­plores the im­pact an item of cloth­ing can have on the lives of women

The Hamilton Spectator - - BOOKS - NANCY WIGSTON Nancy Wigston is a free­lance writer and critic in Toronto. Spe­cial to the Toronto Star

What’s in a lit­tle black dress? When is it more than a pal­try thing upon a hanger? Jane L. Rosen pref­aces her whirl­wind tour through our ma­te­rial world with the wis­dom of French de­signer Yves Saint Lau­rent: “What is im­por­tant in a dress is the woman who is wear­ing it.”

True enough, but the right dress sure can help. In a se­ries of sketches star­ring the most cov­eted dress of the New York sea­son, Rosen ex­plores the im­pact of a hit LBD (“lit­tle black dress”) on the lives of nine very dif­fer­ent women, from the in­génue model who first wears it, to the wicked Hol­ly­wood star who re­fuses to re­turn it, to a shocked Mus­lim girl in Paris who re­ceives it by mis­take.

The LBD first achieved iconic sta­tus back in the 1920s, when French de­signer Coco Chanel, blessed by the edi­tors at Vogue, achieved last­ing fame as the force be­hind a dress that trans­formed black from the colour of mourn­ing to the colour of even­ing — with more than a dash of Jazz Age sex­i­ness thrown in.

Since then, it’s never re­ally gone out of style, as fash­ion maven Rosen well knows.

Per­haps the el­e­gant Audrey Hep­burn wore it most mem­o­rably, play­ing quirky Holly Go­lightly in 1961’s “Break­fast at Tif­fany’s.”

It’s no mis­take that both Audrey and Coco are given walk-on roles in Rosen’s rol­lick­ing fa­ble about dresses and women.

One ap­par­ently mis­matched cou­ple — un­aware that they’re fall­ing in love — eat pop­corn to­gether while watch­ing “Sab­rina,” the movie clas­sic star­ring Hep­burn as a chauf­feur’s daugh­ter who cap­tures the heart of a wealthy busi­ness­man.

(It’s their story, they just don’t know it.)

In an­other sly homage, the mere act of try­ing on a Chanel suit (“ivory wool, and the skirt fell just above her knee … it was stun­ning. She was stun­ning”) grants ev­ery wish of an un­happy girl long­ing to taste the ro­mance and glam­our de­nied her by fate.

Rosen’s en­gag­ing style — chick lit with an edge — rev­els in a world both ro­man­tic and caus­tic, as if Jane Austen had been tele­ported from an English draw­ing room to the change rooms in Bloom­ing­dale’s.

Af­ter the dress, a “Max Ham­mer” la­bel, splashes onto the cover of Women’s Wear Daily it soars into high de­mand, be­com­ing such a rar­ity that two Bloom­ing­dale’s sales­peo­ple of­ten wield power over who de­serves to wear the last size small in the city.

Natalie, a sales­girl from Queens, smart­ing af­ter her sta­tus-con­scious boyfriend dumps her to marry a “fancy lawyer, “cheer­fully dons the dress to play “beard” (fake girl­friend) on a date to a movie pre­miere with a Hol­ly­wood star whose ly­ing ex has outed him in the tabloids.

(Natalie hopes for re­venge, Page Six style.)

Then there’s Feli­cia, the lovelorn ex­ec­u­tive as­sis­tant of mid­dle years: wear­ing the dress, she snags her adored boss’s at­ten­tion. (Hap­pi­ness en­sues.)

Pri­vate de­tec­tive Andie tries it on, hop­ing to en­tice a client’s cheat­ing hus­band; in­stead, she falls in love.

Each tale has charm, in­ven­tion, flashes of magic.

The ac­tion mostly cen­tres on the won­der­land that is “Bloomies” dress depart­ment, where wise Ruthie and To­mas, her faith­ful ju­nior, hold sway.

In To­mas’ words, “We’re your fairy god­moth­ers!”

When good-hearted Ruthie be­stows the lit­tle black num­ber on an un­em­ployed Brown grad­u­ate — for one night only — a girl who’s faked her suc­cess on so­cial me­dia turns hon­est and, more im­por­tantly, em­ploy­able. This Cin­derella doesn’t need a prince — she needs a ca­reer.

Cu­ri­ously, the dress-as-ob­ject seems hardly to ex­ist, apart from mea­gre de­scrip­tors such as “sim­ple” and “quiet.” Its cre­ator, Mor­ris Siegel, a near-nona­ge­nar­ian whose fluky es­cape from 1930s Poland with his friend and res­cuer, the orig­i­nal Max Ham­mer, has achieved both love and suc­cess in Amer­ica.

At his re­tire­ment party, Mor­ris nails the essence of the per­fect dress, as one that gives its wearer ex­actly what she re­quires. “It wasn’t those ill-fit­ting glass slip­pers that gave Cin­derella the con­fi­dence to crash the ball — it was the dress. … A beau­ti­ful dress holds a lit­tle bit of magic in it.”

Magic, agrees Mor­ris’s doc­tor grand­son, hav­ing found love in his ER depart­ment via a strange and hi­lar­i­ous episode fea­tur­ing a girl, the dress, formalde­hyde — and a corpse.

As in all fables, at­tempts to hi­jack this bit of per­fec­tion by vile or self­ish crea­tures end badly; happy end­ings, like the dress, be­ing strictly re­served for those who earn them.

Au­thor Jane L. Rosen ex­plores the im­pact of a hit LBD (“lit­tle black dress”) on the lives of nine very dif­fer­ent women in “Nine Women, One Dress.”

Jane L. Rosen, au­thor of Nine Women, One Dress, Dou­ble­day.

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