I’ve never been the girly type and would’ve been first in the booksellers’ queue muttering did we really need another book about the Kennedys – although mercifully with no mention of Marilyn Monroe – so my attraction to The Pink Suit may seem a little odd but I’d enjoyed Nicole Mary Kelby’s White Truffles in Winter so much that it tickled my fancy. By telling her fictionalised story of the infamous suit through Kate, a back room girl at Chez Ninon, Kelby niftily avoids the well-trodden Kennedy path with its apparently endless power to fascinate.
Run by two ageing, somewhat tyrannical but charming old dears, Chez Ninon has stepped into the breach opened up by the political furore over the Wife’s (as she’s known) penchant for French couture. The Garment Workers’ union has been up in arms and must be appeased as must the milliners who are affronted that neither Kennedy wears a hat. The Wife has sketched a suit to be made in pink bouclè, a Chanel suit which will have to be tailored under license from Coco herself. Kate, unsung yet supremely talented, is to make it. She adores her work, incapable of imagining life without the touch of gorgeous fabric, a luxury enjoyed second-hand and sometimes first when there are remnants to liberate. On the fringes of privilege, she’s an invisible observer whose work is barely acknowledged, unaware of how she’s thought of in her rundown neighbourhood until she’s forced to reconsider her friendship with Patrick whose beloved mother recommended her for her job.
Through Kate, Kelby explores the world of high fashion, lightly weaving strands of social history through her lovely descriptions of fabric and the machinations of Maison Blanche as those in control of the Wife’s wardrobe are dubbed at Chez Ninon. There’s a nice little scene in which Kate admires a group of black subway riders musing that many of the Harlem tailors learnt their trade in Italy. It becomes clear that one of the riders is Dr Martin Luther King whose tie she compliments, distancing herself from the nasty piece of casual racism which comes before. The political significance of the suit is cleverly portrayed, from the message it’s to convey on its first wearing – it was worn several times before November 22nd 1963 – to the nit-picking analysis with which it will be met by a media looking for any signs of excess or lack of patriotism, let alone style. Subtle parallels are drawn between the Wife and Kate, both beautiful women from an Irish immigrant background one dedicated to the other who remains in complete ignorance of her. The only foot put wrong for me was towards the end when Kate wears her own replica of the suit but that’s a small quibble in what is otherwise a thoroughly enjoyable novel. Hard not to read it without thinking about the intense scrutiny suffered by politicians’ or celebrities’ partners which is infinitely worse now than it was fifty years ago. Coping with the lacerating tabloid observations regularly meted out must be bad enough if you’ve chosen to be in the public eye but seem wholly undeserved if you haven’t.