Reverse-Cinderella novel set in LONDON
Novel set in Paris (fashion and flair in the 1930s)
9th November 2014
The Dress Thief by Natalie Meg Evans: novel set in Paris of the late 1930s.
A charming novel that totally transported me to the Paris fashion houses of the late 1930s. This is the story of Alix Gower, who navigates her way into the heart of the fashion industry via a soupçon of subterfuge, charisma and verve. She is a likeable character who charms not only the reader but her male admirers as she carves her niche in the Parisian fashion world. She is tasked early on to steal the designs from Maison Javier, so they can wing their way across the Atlantic to New York, where they can be made up quickly and more cheaply and then appear there before they even really hit the stores of Europe.
Throughout the book is a rumbling backstory: who really killed Alix’s Grandfather, the artist Alfred Lutzman? Their family comes originally from Kirchwiller, Alsace, and in the wings, like a kind of guardian angel lurks the figure of the Jean-Yves, Comte de Charembourg, also with roots in Alsace. Why does he take such an interest in this little family with a Jewish heritage, when he has his own family to take care of?
Alix works as a telephonist but then has the lucky break of starting out as a seamstress for Maison Javier, one of the premier fashion house of Paris. This may not be Hermès, Lanvin or Schiaparelli but it is a company that is initially a means to an end for her – but comes to mean so much more to her, under the principled and caring patronage of Monsieur Javier himself. As she ingratiates herself into the world of Javier she graduates from midinette to mannequin and then to advisor, and is very much part of the creation of the Oro dress, the “collision between a star and a comet” the apotheosis of the season’s collection. At every turn Alix is aware her true motives of theft will be discovered….
The romantic elements add a solid backbone to the story, though Alix’s experiences with the men who pass through her life come to test her almost beyond endurance. There is Paul who is struggling with the death of his Mother, and cares for his little sisters on a decrepit house-boat – and is part of the group behind Alix’s thieving of designs. Serge drops top mannequin Solange in favour of Alix, quite the smooth man about town but is he all he seems? And Verrian, heir and cosmopolitan man, is just on the cusp of starting a relationship with Alix when he feels impassioned to take part in the fighting going on in the Basque area of Spain. And leaves her. All her relationships serve to make a woman of her and broaden her experience of the world and what it has to offer, both positive and negative. Apparently the novel was first entitled “A Dark Flowering’ and as Alix grows and blossoms into a competent and sassy young woman, it is evident how apt that early title was.
The story is set against the looming Second World War, in the form of the bombing of Guernica and the fears voiced by her grandmother, Mémé with whom she lives, that Hitler may come for them, even though they are now in Paris. The growing anti Semitism is percolating and things are becoming uneasy.
The author has clearly researched extensively and the result is a weave of good story, time and place. Enjoy!
And we have been fortunate that the Natalie Meg Evans has agreed to answer some of our questions, so we hand over to her:
TF What brought you to writing after a career in theatre?
NME I always wanted to act and after a stint at art college, I fled to London to act in fringe theatre. It was tough and the money, zero. Back then, if you didn’t have an Equity Card you couldn’t take professional roles. But getting the card was almost impossible unless you were one of the few plucked from drama school to join a professional theatre company. In my out-of-work weeks, I took to writing. First, plays of my own, then novels. I gave up the theatre in the 1980s to get a ‘proper job’ in Public Relations where I carved a niche writing magazine articles and company newsletters, and would work on my novel-in-progress at the weekends. Writing sort of took me over, and I realised that I wanted to do that full-time, for a living. Took a while to get there, though!
TF What attracted you particularly to the fashion houses of the period, late 1930s Paris and especially the copying of designs?
NME My mother was an accomplished dressmaker and the whirr of the sewing machine was background music in our home. She was a French teacher and Francophile who collected fashion magazines as well as a huge collection of Vogue patterns. Because she was technical in her sewing, she passed on an appreciation for the way clothes are put together. I longed to be tall and slender like the models on the front of Vogue patterns, and it fed a desire to bring that world to life in words. Why the late 1930s? Well, I think that era was the most utterly stylish. The slightly padded shoulders, the narrow, willow-wand skirts, the natural waist and mid-calf hems are a fusion of masculine and feminine. It was a fashion era with few extremes (compared say to the flapper look of the 20s or the flares and platforms of the 70s). To me, restraint is elegance.
I discovered while researching 30’s haute couture that copying was a huge black-market industry and I thought – aha, that’ll make for a different angle. Not being an entirely virtuous person myself, I like characters who are a little bit wicked, so I made my heroine Alix Gower a copyist.
TF The story is part romance, interwoven with historical background. That must have been a lot of research. Where did you start?
NME Yes, it was a lot of research, and sometimes I wasn’t sure I had got things right so had to research them all over again! I have a bookcase groaning with books from the period, or relating to the period and I read the subject thoroughly. Thank goodness for the internet. I first started writing before it was invented and I can tell you that having to schlepp out to London libraries to check facts was incredibly time consuming. You have to be a bit cautious about internet facts, but it is a life-saver. Just today, for instance, I checked up when Germany declared war on the USA. 11th December 1941. Prior to Wiki, I’d have had to find the reference book on the shelf and thumb through it over a cup of tea. Such a time-suck!
TF Paris certainly comes alive in your capable hands. What is your connection to the city?
NME A visit when I was fourteen in the company of my mother and a French friend of hers. He was called Louis and was born in the 19th century. He fought in the Great War, and to him, Paris was the centre of the world. He took us on tours of all his favourite places and described them as he’d seen them in his childhood. I think I saw it through his eyes and that was a great privilege. I’m going to Paris again in a couple of months and am really looking forward to it, though it has changed radically.
TF Your next book is The Milliner’s Secret – perhaps you could give us a little taster of what to expect?
NME The story actually opens in 1937, same year as The Dress Thief. I see 1937 a transitional year, when fears of a new, catastrophic war hardened into reality. Stories should begin at a ‘point of change.’
The Milliner’s Secret begins with a forward-flash to July 1940. France has fallen to the Germans, Paris is occupied and Coralie de Lirac is in terrible danger because somebody knows that she is not the French citizen she pretends to be. Coralie is a hat maker, a milliner, who has re-invented herself as a well-born French woman out of necessity. She lives by her wits, and almost by accident discovers that she has a gift for designing hats. She stretches that talent a long way, getting to the top of her profession by relying on good hat-making technicians that don’t have her social flare, and by turning events to her own advantage. That draws her into the murky world of collaboration. Is somebody a collaborator because they sell beautiful hats to the wives of German officers? Many people think so, and Coralie, who never does anything by halves, takes a German lover too. But she is also brave and at heart, on the side of right. When the French Resistance asks her to shelter a stranded British airman, she agrees, even though it may cost her the love of her life, and life itself.
TF Tell us a little more about the cover of The Dress Thief and how it came into being. That is a STUNNING green.
NME The model is Ella Pocock, who works at my publishing company, Quercus. I’m sure Ella won’t mind me saying that she is enviably tall, and so was a good choice to represent Alix Gower, the heroine of The Dress Thief. The dress itself was supplied by an evening gown hire company and was not actually green. (Am I spoiling anybody’s cherished beliefs? I hope not!) The designers changed it with technical wizardry, choosing that beautiful emerald because it was a very unusual colour to see on a book. The designer also added that sweeping train. I loved the image from the first, and I still say ‘Wow!’ when I see it on a shelf in a bookshop. The cover of The Milliner’s Secret is also green and I want to keep green as my brand as it’s always been my favourite colour.
TF What kinds of books do you choose to read when you travel?
NME At the moment, if I go on a train or plane, I take research. On my last journey to London, I took ‘Luck of the Devil’, a short book dealing with the many failed attempts to assassinate Hitler. It isn’t light reading, and was in parts harrowing, but that is the cost of writing books set in this period. I do the horrid part, and hopefully my readers get to enjoy a deeply emotional story that takes them into a time of great jeopardy and high stakes.
For light relief I would be likely to take something by Kate Atkinson, Anne Tyler, or Robert Goddard. Very different writers but what they have in common is that they transport you out of the ‘now’ and are wonderful with words. I always know a book has me if, on my way back from London, I nearly miss my stop at Diss and go on to Norwich. It’s never happened yet, but I’ve had a couple of near-disasters!
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