The Dress Thief – 1930s Parisian haute couture – Natalie Meg Evans

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This story is set in Paris in the 1930s – a decade of haute couture and haute danger…

The setting is the fashion houses and the cut throat fashion world in the most chicest cities in the world…

Think Chanel, Dior, Yves Saint Laurent…..

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Entering this world comes at a price for Alix Gower and her attempts to make her way in the world of haute couture. She dreams of becoming a designer in a leading fashion house. She is given a chance in a million but but only if she steals the designs. Does she have a choice? She is determined to become a designer despite being the poor, illegitimate child of a mother who was an Alsace Jewess and father from England who both died too young. It is something she is hungry for and she has to support her remaining family after all. But what will be the cost if she gets caught?

This is a journey across Paris via its fashion houses, bypassing its chocolate houses, cafes, beautiful parks, imposing bridges and the darkest corners of the human conscience….

The main locations  –

With the Eiffel Tower marked in blue. A - Saint Sulpice where Alix lives B -The chic streets where all the posh shops and fashion houses are C - Rue Tremoille where the fictious Maison Javier is located D - Boulevard St Germain  - where the very real and very tasty Deux Magots is E The area of Pigalle known for its nightlife of a certain kind The butte Montmatre where Raphael and the artistes live
With the Eiffel Tower marked in blue.
A – Saint Sulpice where Alix lives
B -Faubourg St Honore – The chic streets where all the posh shops and fashion houses are                                                          C – Rue de la Tremoille where the fictious Maison Javier is located
D – Boulevard St Germain – where the very real and very tasty Deux Magots is
E The area of Pigalle where the fictional Rose Noire club is located.
F -The butte Montmatre where Raphael and the artistes live

 

 

The setting in themes – The fashion houses of 1930s Paris

Now if you are thinking that this may turn into a frilly novel about fashion and sewing, you could not be more wrong. And it would be a shame to miss out on this thrilling journey and insight into the cut throat world of high fashion. The Dress Thief portrays what is meant to be a young seamstress and work in a world when men dominate but where women have sharpened claws and are not afraid to use them.

Faubourg St Honore - home of many a high fashion name
Faubourg St Honore – home of many a high fashion name

We stroll down the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré where Alix hesitates before going inside the famous Hermes store to look at a design and inside the fictious Maison Javier located in Rue de la Tremoille where Alix gets a job……

There were twelve ateliers, each with long tables and huge windows. There were also cutting rooms and store rooms crammed with loth. Pressing room , finishing rooms…she was shown the button room and the thread room and the storage room where finished garments hung waiting delivery.

Inside the fashion house and the models that Alix might have seen
Inside the fashion house and the models that Alix might have seen

The fashion houses are at war. Business is as cut throat as they come and their mantra might well as be the following -One good design is a godsend, a second is a steal.

The fabrics

As we enter this world, the author not only takes us on a tour of the fabrics, styles and colours, but the atmosphere in the sewing room and stores. We get behind the scenes -for it doesn’t seem enough to call them chapters – which are breathtaking. 

Oh the sumptuous material and the fashion houses...the decadence and the glamour
Oh the sumptuous material and the fashion houses…the decadence and the glamour

 A wooden mannequin was decked out in a ball dress of gold dulpion silk. More gold than Alix had ever seen in her life. 

She walked slowly around the figurine, assessing the gown’s tight waist, the voluptuous skirt that fell in graded flounces. It had a neckline out of a renaissance painting which would leave the arms bare. Javier’s dream was that this dress ‘should move like waves of molten gold’.

Paris – shiny on the surface but a rough fabric of society underneath

The Dress Thief however is much more than a novel about the inside of a fashion house – war is approaching and the Parisians are worried. The rich  who frequent the fashion houses feel both excited and hedonistic at the prospect. Alix however is the most fearful of all…

The maid gave the directions. ‘Come at seven. A taxi will take you away at eight as Madame has an engagement. Do not mention Madame’s name to anybody at your place of work, or at home.’

What about  a fake beard and a big hat? Alix muttered as she hung up. It was starting, the theft. She felt sick.

There is depth and quality to the history of the setting – we see Paris in a world of contrasts – draped in shiny fabrics but within the shadow of the bombs and despair.

People sit in cafes such at Les Deux Magots in Bld St -German and discuss the war and what is going on. Artists and the like congregate there as does Alix when she meets someone and he gives her some flowers wrapped in a ribbon of Lanvin blue….

The famous and thankfully very real Deux Magots
The famous and thankfully very real Deux Magots

Alix and Paul meet in the Jardin du Luxembourg near to the lion statue to exchange information about stealing the designs….

It was all very well for Mémé to tell her to stay safe, Alix mused a few days later as she crossed the Jardin du Luxembourg on her way to meet Paul, her hands deep in her pockets, her head bowed against a bitter wind. After all, there’d been no sign of caution the day Mémé announced they were moving to Paris.

The gardens - a stunning scene for intrigue and secrets
The gardens – a stunning scene for intrigue and secrets

Paris and its cobbled dark streets provide the perfect backdrop for a city of contrasts.

The war

The plot is an intricate  one which continues to surprise throughout. The detail is vivid and intricate as the designs on the couture dresses – for against these fashions are the scars of war – the social and historical observations of France and indeed of Spain from where the journalist whom Alix meets has been working covering he horrors of the Spanish civil war – 

The theatre of war was turning north. The facists had failed to take Madrid and were targeting Spain’s industrial centres instead. but even so, Striking little Durango made no sense.

Three days later all hell had broken loose. 

Guernica as painted by Picasso
Guernica as painted by Picasso

Guernica? 

A town, but really an event. A bombing.

It seemed that Picasso had created the moment any hope of peace exploded and humanity perished.

It is true that Verrian will have trouble adapting to life in Paris and when he meets Alix their paths will cross in ways that neither could have expected.

In war time it is said that the normal rules don’t apply and that people act differently  – in Alix’s world there are men from the underworld like Serge Martel, owner of the Rose-Noire nightclub, and the Comte de Charembourg, a wartime comrade of her father. Each with secrets of their own and secrets that they and those around them must keep hidden at all costs.

However, Alix is living the most double life of them all and if she gets caught, if someone knows what she is doing, then who knows what will happen and what the consequences will be.

The world of fashion might be a battlefield, but the real world is at war. The two intertwining stories provide an explosive mix.

Visit the author at Quercus books here – http://www.quercusbooks.co.uk/dress-thief/

Natalie is on twitter – @natmegevans

5 thoughts on “The Dress Thief – 1930s Parisian haute couture – Natalie Meg Evans

  1. This sounds so good and unlike anything else I have come across. I need to check this one out as I really enjoy good historical fiction. I do like the fact you’ve added a map into the post. Great review, thank you.

    1. ah thank you! It really was a gem of a read and I can’t believe I haven’t seen it more prominently in bookshops etc. I loved it! Intriguing lifestyle in Paris fashion and the mix of the Spanish civil war makes for a whole range of emotions. The scenes in the dressmaking rooms is absolutely fascinating! What the copyists did and why. Hope you enjoy it!

  2. As the author, I have to agree, it would have been lovely to see the book more prominently on display. If you are inspired to read The Dress Thief having read this blog, do go into your nearest book shop and ask, as this is the kind of badgering bookshops love!

    1. Have rearranged a few bookshop shelves since 😉
      This book is so great and captivating that it should be in the window! Dressed in Lanvin blue fabric as a backdrop of course.

      Thanks Natalie for your kind words. Am off back to Paris now for a indulgent reread.

      1. Thanks for shuffling books around! I will be flying out of Heathrow tomorrow and you can be sure I’ll pop into Smiths and make sure it’s in a good place at the front.

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