Book review: The Pink Suit by Nicole Mary Kelby

When President John F Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22 1963, the shocking pictures of his wife Jackie’s blood-soaked pink suit dominated the world headlines.
The Pink Suit by Nicole Mary KelbyThe Pink Suit by Nicole Mary Kelby
The Pink Suit by Nicole Mary Kelby

Using the now iconic suit as her central motif, Nicole Mary Kelby weaves a haunting and enthralling novel based on the true story of its journey from a Manhattan fashion workshop to its final resting place in a secret Kansas storage cave owned by the US National Archives.

The Pink Suit, which uses an Irish-born seamstress as its principal character, imagines the life of the garment that became a bloody symbol of the moment the American Dream turned to ashes.

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And it’s a beautiful and unforgettable story, stitching together fact and fiction with all the precision and passion of the New York dressmakers who helped turn one of America’s youngest First Ladies into a fashion leader.

Kate works in the back room at Chez Ninon, an exclusive Manhattan atelier which boasts that it can give its wealthy clients French fashion without the French price tag by making authorised copies of the very best Paris fashion show designs.

Stitch by stitch and hour by hour, Kate tries to imagine every facet of her clients’ lives, believing it is the only way to get their clothes right.

Their most illustrious client is Jackie Kennedy and even though Kate has never met ‘the Wife,’ as she is known in the workshop, she savours working on her clothes. In fact, she knows every tuck and pleat that her beautiful outfits require to create the illusion of physical perfection which the people of the United States have come to expect from the First Lady.

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Kate and the First Lady share roots in rural Ireland and although their lives could not be more different, Kate honours their distant connection by using the muslin patterns for each piece she sews for Mrs Kennedy to produce an almost identical garment – but in a different fabric – for her sister.

Kate’s latest assignment is working on a copy of Coco Chanel’s new ‘must-have’ suit for Mrs Kennedy. She wants it in pink, raspberry pink to be precise, and the First Lady has even sketched her own design of how the bouclé wool outfit should look.

And it is this striking suit – one of her husband’s favourites – which Jackie chooses to wear when she accompanies JFK to Dallas on a sunny Texan morning and is greeted by ecstatic crowds.

Before the end of that terrible day, Kate’s handiwork, the pink suit that the young seamstress knew every stitch of, ‘made by so many hands, so many hearts,’ would be the last thing the President ever saw…

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Kelby excels at conjuring up the eclectic fashion world of the Sixties and the detailed construction of the ‘reckless pink’ suit, offsetting the life of America’s legendary First Lady with the everyday realities of an Irish immigrant woman in New York.

The Pink Suit is an extraordinary and emotive novel about politics, fashion, history and the people who make it, whether they live in a Manhattan back street or the splendour of the White House.

Original, intriguing and beautifully crafted…

(Virago, paperback, £7.99)

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