Yet another story on a royal wedding might be be a turnoff, but Jennifer Robson’s novel, “The Gown,” surprises with a captivating story on self-reliant women who sewed and embroidered Princess Elizabeth’s wedding dress. Based on true events in October, 1947 in London, it focuses on the Norman Hartnell fashion house that was commissioned to create wedding gowns for Elizabeth and her attendants when she wed Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten.
This fictional version features two main characters: Ann Hughes, who at age 14 became an apprentice embroider, and Miriam Dassin, a French Jew imprisoned when her parents were killed by Nazis. Ann is in her late twenties at war’s end, she is left alone; her brother dies in the Blitz, her sister-in-law left for Canada and her parents are dead. Both women, despite war traumas, are determined to survive on their own, so they pool resources and share a flat.
When Hartnell is asked to provide gowns for the royal wedding, Miriam and Ann become the principal embroiders. Ann is elated but Dassin questions the wedding timing when people were dying in their homes because they lacked coal for heat. Ultimately, Dassin acknowledges the occasion is intended as a diversion to help the British people heal. Indeed, the world becomes enthralled, and the pair become entangled in a web as scoundrels scurry to glimpse and photograph the dresses to cash in big before the wedding.
The story fast-forwards to 2016, when Ann dies in Toronto. Her granddaughter, Heather Mackenzie, inherits a box with a note, “HM London Oct. 1947, and a piece of cloth embroidered with “three star-shaped satin flowers,” composed of pearls and crystals and three curving ears of wheat with grains made of rice-shaped seed pearls. Mackenzie is mystified how her grandmother whom she never saw embroider could possess such a valuable item. She journeys to England to learn Ann’s hidden secrets, the mystery behind the dresses, and her friendship with Dassin.
It is moving story of love and Englanders’ infatuation with royalty, and the historic wedding. Robson’s extensive research and interview with Betty Foster, one of four of Elizabeths’ seamstresses, gives readers insights on the women who designed and sewed fashions during the 1940s-50s.