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Linda Grant, a London-based novelist and journalist, doesn’t consider herself a fashion expert. She’s better known for literary fiction — her 2008 novel, “The Clothes on Their Backs,” was shortlisted for a Booker Prize, and her 2000 novel, “When I Lived in Modern Times,” which looks at a young London girl who moves to Palestine in 1946, won the Orange Prize in the same year. But after a run of journalism assignments, such as being asked to write “brainy ruminations” about the spring 2003 Paris collections for the Guardian and a piece analyzing costume in literature for British Vogue, she decided to investigate “why clothes matter.”
“I was never intending to write a fashion book,” says Grant, sitting in a red leather armchair at her airy North London home. “I wanted to write a book about why very, very few women will say to you, ‘I don’t care what I look like.’”
“The Thoughtful Dresser” (out now from Simon & Schuster) examines everything from Grant’s memories of her mother and the emergence of department stores as “a public arena of [women’s] own” to how Holocaust survivor Catherine Hill, who owned the Chez Catherine boutique in Toronto, reinvented her sense of self through fashion.
In 2008, Grant started a blog of the same name, which soon drew comments from smart women in their 40s and 50s. “[They] were intensely interested in fashion but not in the fashion world,” she says. “So I knew that this idea that only trivial, empty-headed airheads were interested in fashion was just simply wrong.”
While Grant is fulsome in her praise of what she calls “glittering cathedrals of beauty,” she’s less enamored by some of the industry’s key players. In the book, Grant contrasts the figures of the late Alexander McQueen, Alber Elbaz and the once-rotund Karl Lagerfeld with “the rigid demarcations of fashion’s sizing.” “It’s a strange thing,” Grant says. “If there is an amazing restaurant and you’re prepared to save up, you can go to this restaurant and sample this exquisite cuisine, but that’s not true of major designers. If you’re over a certain size, you can’t dress in Chanel. I felt that designers are just not interested in the majority of women and we have to recognize and acknowledge that.”
The tome also touches on the implications of shopping during a global financial crisis — the book’s U.K. release last year came at the height of the recession — with Grant describing “the puritan virtue of the nonspender flowing like ice water in your veins.”
“There was a real feeling of, ‘Oh my God, why am I publishing this book about shopping and clothes at this wrong time?’” Grant says. However, as the dust began to settle, Grant remained convinced of the appeal of dressing well, no matter the economic climate. “It may well be people are spending less, they’re buying cheaper, they may be only looking,” she says. “[But] I think it is an ingrained human urge…if the women of Britain didn’t lose interest in fashion during the war, it’s just not going to happen now.”