Even before a president’s blood was spilled upon its boucle fabric, Jackie Kennedy’s pink suit was destined to become iconic. Minnesota author Nicole Mary Kelby (“White Truffles in Winter”) has enjoyed modest literary success until now, but her latest novel, “The Pink Suit,” built around the Garment District back story of that now-famous outfit, is sure to catapult the writer’s career straight from pret-a-porter to haute couture.
Based upon a much-admired Chanel design, the jacket and skirt have become emblematic of a moment frozen in time. To America, the girlish pink suit Jackie Kennedy wore on that fateful Dallas day represents many things: lost innocence, a bygone era of ladylike comportment, and most of all, a bitter reminder that clothing itself may serve as our only suit of armor as we navigate a deeply unjust world.
The novel’s first great surprise? The plot isn’t centered upon Jackie at all. And, even better, it’s a largely happy romp into the one place so many women find daily escapism and solace: high fashion. Lucky for the “sartorialists” among us, “The Pink Suit” focuses on saucy young Kate, a beautiful Irish emigre seamstress with a true artisan’s touch behind a sewing needle. She gives great heft to the story as the secret superstar of Chez Ninon, the dressmaker charged with providing American-made clothing to “The Wife.” Best of all? Kate gets an insider’s glimpse into the rarefied world of high-society matrons and wealthy socialites so often cloaked in mystery to outsiders. So do we.
The fabric, literal and figurative, of “The Pink Suit” also illuminates a far more personal period in dressmaking, before entirely mass-produced pieces entered the fray. Fingering the fabric meant for the first lady’s clothing, Kate muses: “If it had come from [Ireland], the wool would have been dyed in variations of wild pink thyme and the deep rose of St. Dabeoc’s heath and that particular geranium pink-magenta of the bloody cranesbill. And while the bouclé was spun and woven and blocked, the secrets and dreams and fears and laughter and cups of tea and sweet-cream cakes and blue jokes and awful puns and razzing and anger and songs and prayers and tears and love — yes, love — of those who were born on the Island would have brought it to life.”
Kelby reminds readers that women who came of age in the 1960s, rich and poor, were governed by social mores reflected in clothing that often proved constricting. Kate, just like the first lady, is dogged by watchful eyes; in her neighborhood of Inwood, filled with Irish immigrants, the sewn-up matrons are eager to see the career girl become “respectable.” Kate’s romance with “greenhorn” butcher Patrick is sure to keep readers guessing as the seamstress is forced to decide if she wants to pursue her own entrepreneurial dreams or follow a more traditional path. That very modern female conundrum — the pursuit of career vs. family life — is the most interesting underlying question enrobed within the plot of “Pink Suit.”
If, as Kelby insists, “a woman in a beautiful suit can go anywhere,” the Minnesota author herself seems poised to reach rosy new career heights with the publication of this carefully tailored novel.
Andrea Hoag is a book critic whose work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times and USA Today.