Huffpost Books
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Mary Kincaid Headshot

The Must-Have Summer Beach Read for Fashionistas

Posted: Updated:

2010-07-29-wolff.jpg

"Every dress has a history. And so does every woman."

These are the first words on the book jacket of A Vintage Affair, a book that effortlessly melds a charming story with a manifesto extolling the wonders of vintage clothing.

Now you all know I loooooove vintage clothing but I have another love in life too: good books. So you can imagine my delight when I curled up last Saturday night with A Vintage Affair.

From the first page, I was whisked along on a marathon cover-to-cover adventure. I finished this easy-to-read novel in just one sitting that didn't end till the wee hours of the morning when I finally closed my eyes to dream of handsome gentlemen and beautiful clothes.

This lovely tale, written by a British author, hit US shores less than a month ago and it's already got people -- not just fashionistas -- buzzing. A hit bestseller in the UK (it was an Amazon.com.uk "Best of Year" title in 2009), it immediately garnered recognition here as a Barnes and Noble Recommends Program "Main Selection."

Certainly these well-deserved accolades are due, in part, to the novel's endearing main character, Phoebe Swift, a former Sotheby's auctioneer who has just opened a vintage clothing shop outside London. Of course, I immediately identified with Phoebe, who embodies the passion and spirit of all of us who adore vintage clothing. But the novel is populated with other charming characters as well. Phoebe's seamstress, Val, for instance, reminds us that "If there's a fault on a garment, make a virtue of it!" Now that sounds like a Vintage Crusader talking!

And while you'll surely enjoy the lush descriptions of clothes and day-to-day goings on at Phoebe's vintage shop, which makes this a carefree summer beach read, you'll truly appreciate how the novel deftly blends past and present, romance and mystery, and a theme of forgiveness and redemption into something much more satisfying.

Having read the book I'm now certain of two things:

1. CUPCAKE DRESS will become a new keyword for eBay and Etsy vintage clothing listings. ("What's a cupcake dress?" you ask? Well, here's one that I sold on Zuburbia a few months ago.)

2. This book will propel more women who've always balked at vintage clothing to look at it in a new light.

This is all thanks to the book's author, Isabel Wolff, a newly appointed Vintage Crusader but a long accomplished writer with seven bestselling novels that have been published in 29 languages. You can imagine my glee when she tore herself away from her family in London just long enough to chat with Zuburbia about this utterly delightful read.

1. What inspired you to make your lead character a vintage store owner?

I wanted to make my lead character, Phoebe, a vintage store owner because I could see the possibilities for real poignancy. With vintage you're not just buying fabric and threads, you're buying a piece of someone's past. So I knew that the story would be about the past lives the vintage clothes that Phoebe sells have lived. I was able to give them past lives that were always, I hope, interesting and, in some cases, heartbreaking.

2. Were you a vintage fashionista before you began this book? Do you currently collect or wear vintage clothing? If so, where do you like to shop?

I've always bought and worn vintage clothing. I still have a Biba skirt that I bought for 50 pence from a thrift store when I was in my late teens. And when I was a student I bought a 1920s black lace flapper dress. I loved it to bits, literally, because in the end it fell to pieces because I hadn't stored it properly. I live close to London's Portobello Market and so I often look for vintage there -- especially vintage crocodile handbags and silk scarves. There's also a wonderful shop near me called Dolly Diamond which I love looking in.

3. How did you go about your research for this book to ensure you got the vintage clothing references just right?

Although I loved vintage clothes, I wasn't an expert, so I talked to several vintage dress shop owners about how they source the clothes, how they restore and repair them, which eras are fashionable at a particular time, and how they run their shops day-to-day. Websites like FashionEra.com were immensely informative, as was vintage clothing expert Kerry Taylor of Kerry Taylor Auctions. I also read a lot of books about the great designers and couturiers -- it was some of the nicest research I've ever had to do!

4. Your character, Mrs. Bell, doesn't want to part with an old but treasured little blue coat. Can you talk a bit about the importance of this one article of clothing to your story and how clothes really can represent someone's history?

My heroine, Phoebe Swift, goes to buy a collection of clothes from Therese Bell, an elderly Frenchwoman who had come to London, from Provence, after the war. As the two women become friends, Mrs. Bell tells Phoebe the story of the little blue coat -- a story that is so painful to her that she has never told anyone. The coat was made by her mother in 1943 in Avignon. Therese promised to take the coat to her Jewish schoolfriend, Monique, who was in hiding from the Nazis; instead, Therese inadvertently betrayed Monique and has lived with her guilt ever since.

But Phoebe isn't merely sympathetic. She feels a profound connection with this story because her own best friend, Emma, has recently died, and Phoebe feels responsible. Phoebe becomes almost obsessed with the little blue coat and sets out to uncover the mystery of what happened to Monique, last seen entering Auschwitz in August 1943.

So the coat serves three functions: first, it's the device through which I take the story into wartime Provence; second, it's an emblem of Mrs. Bell's guilt and regret -- a regret that has lasted 65 years; and finally, it is the thread of hope that connects these two women born fifty years apart and that offers each the chance to be redeemed.

5. Do you own anything that you feel you'll never part with?

I have a beautiful grosgrain satin or sateen dress in a dove grey that my grandmother had made to wear to my mother's wedding in 1953. When she died the dress was handed on to me, and I have worn it a few times, notably to the launch of A Vintage Affair. I love it because it has sentimental associations -- I have photos of my grandmother wearing it -- and I've already told my six-year-old daughter, she can have it.

6. One of your characters exclaims "The dress claimed me." Have you ever felt that way about a piece of clothing?

I have, but it isn't actually vintage. I was in New York in 1996 to make a radio documentary about Steinway pianos when I went into Saks. They were having a big sale, and I saw a Christian Dior off-the-peg brown wool crepe suit with a fake leopardskin collar hugely reduced at only $80. I adored it and I simply had to have it. So, yes, it did claim me, and I still wear it!

7. Your book is part mystery, part romance, a story of redemption and also a manifesto for vintage clothing. I found myself identifying with Phoebe and her philosophy of vintage as well as her attempts to "convert" her mother into a vintage fashionista. Do you hope that more women will consider wearing vintage clothing after reading your book and have you heard from any who have?

Vintage fashion has already become "hot", really over the past decade, with Hollywood stars choosing to wear it on the red carpet. In fact it's become the ultimate in chic sophistication, indicating originality and flair on the part of the wearer. Even so, there are lots of women who wouldn't normally wear it who've told me that the book has definitely made them want to go into vintage dress shops. I've also had messages from readers saying that they've bought vintage garments as a direct result of having read A Vintage Affair. Lots of readers have said that they adore the "cupcake" dresses that Phoebe sells and would love to own one. So yes, I think the novel has made more women consider wearing vintage -- and I think it's also made many women think about the stories that their vintage garments might tell.