The window of my local charity shop was full of green – a St Patrick’s Day display – and as I walked past I spotted this neat little dress. The bust dart turning into a princess seam particularly interested me as I’d only just done some experimentation in that area, though my handling is very different and the result more smock than sleek.
By coincidence, my muslin, made from a worn IKEA bedsheet, is also green!
I had no need for the dress in the charity shop, the kind I imagine worn by a bright young office girl just starting out. But it’s sold now and I wish I’d looked at it more closely while I had the chance – who made it? what was it like inside? – because yesterday evening I saw Brooklyn, the story of a young Irishwoman (played by the beautifully lucid-eyed Saoirse Ronan) who due to lack of work and prospects leaves her family to begin a new life in the US. Not only did one of the women who shares Eilis’ lodgings wear a top featuring the same detail on the bust as in the charity shop dress, but the entire film captivated me in a way films rarely do, so that I’m now dwelling all misty-eyed on every remembered detail.
I wasn’t particularly impressed by the trailers for the film when I saw them on TV but one of the reasons I chose to go anyway is the costume. Odile Dicks-Mireaux was nominated for a Bafta for her designs. Set in 1951-52 – days before homes had telephones so long distance calls between the two sides of the Atlantic had to be arranged by appointment – the story sometimes focuses on clothes: trying to dress well on a little money (the Ireland scenes feature some bulky, homely knitwear), and the way clothes are used to create a persona or those important first impressions. The contrast between the plain outifts worn by new émigrés and those who’ve already made their home in the US, with all the income and confidence this gives, is a sub-plot in itself. Here the big screen proved a better choice than TV would have been. I delighted in each set of old buttons and the simple style lines, remembering the clothes worn by my very elegant maternal grandmother. Modest and classic, these garments were usually home-made and treated with care so they could be worn for decades, even as cruel fashion moved on and mocked.
I looked, as us dressmakers tend to, for the odd anachronism of an invisible zipper or man-made fibres, or the tell-tale perfection of a garment that had been mass-manufactured in its thousands, but I saw none. Perhaps because many of the outfits were not made for the film but sourced from vintage shops as this interview with the costumier suggests.
Another reason I went to watch the film is that some years ago I read the novel by Colm Tóibín. It was foisted upon me (you could say) by a member of my book group who chose it as one of our monthly reads. In a group of about eight every one of us liked it which doesn’t often happen. But the film, in my view, is even better. Partly as the sets and the costumes are so well done and evocative, thus filling between the lines of a book, but mainly because the performances of the entire cast, and especially the lead, are mesmerising so that everything I’ve mentioned so far is secondary in this poignant and character-led story. Having recently watched Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant, two well made, Oscar-scooper films in which the main characters have a super-human ability to repeatedly escape death so that it becomes impossible to care, here is the perfect antidote. To watch a sweet and vulnerable girl having to make a choice between two worlds, either decision causing pain and loss to those who love her, was almost unbearable. Which is not to say it wasn’t funny too. Go see.