From the internationally bestselling author of Somewhere in France comes an enthralling historical novel about one of the most famous wedding dresses of the twentieth century—Queen Elizabeth’s wedding gown—and the fascinating women who made it.
“Millions will welcome this joyous event as a flash of color on the long road we have to travel.”
—Sir Winston Churchill on the news of Princess Elizabeth’s forthcoming wedding
London, 1947: Besieged by the harshest winter in living memory, burdened by onerous shortages and rationing, the people of postwar Britain are enduring lives of quiet desperation despite their nation’s recent victory. Among them are Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin, embroiderers at the famed Mayfair fashion house of Norman Hartnell. Together they forge an unlikely friendship, but their nascent hopes for a brighter future are tested when they are chosen for a once-in-a-lifetime honor: taking part in the creation of Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown.
Toronto, 2016: More than half a century later, Heather Mackenzie seeks to unravel the mystery of a set of embroidered flowers, a legacy from her late grandmother. How did her beloved Nan, a woman who never spoke of her old life in Britain, come to possess the priceless embroideries that so closely resemble the motifs on the stunning gown worn by Queen Elizabeth II at her wedding almost seventy years before? And what was her Nan’s connection to the celebrated textile artist and holocaust survivor Miriam Dassin?
With The Gown, Jennifer Robson takes us inside the workrooms where one of the most famous wedding gowns in history was created. Balancing behind-the-scenes details with a sweeping portrait of a society left reeling by the calamitous costs of victory, she introduces readers to three unforgettable heroines, their points of view alternating and intersecting throughout its pages, whose lives are woven together by the pain of survival, the bonds of friendship, and the redemptive power of love.
Read an excerpt from The Gown:
“Queen. Afternoon. Here.”
“The queen is coming here for a fitting?” It didn’t make sense. The queen and princesses never came to Bruton Street. Mr. Hartnell and Mam’selle always went to them.
“No. To see the gown. Queen, Princess Elizabeth. Margaret, too. Queen Mary, Duchess of Gloucester.” Poor Miss Duley still couldn’t catch her breath.
“Just to see the gown?” Ann repeated.
“Yes. They want to visit the workrooms. But the state of this place . . . what’ll we do?”
Ann didn’t have to look around to know what was distressing Miss Duley. The workroom was a shambles. It was clean and orderly where it counted, which at that moment was the great, long frame that held the princess’s train, but everywhere else was a disaster.
“Mr. Hartnell will have a fit if he sees it like this,” Miss Duley went on. “And what will the queen say?”
“She won’t see it like this. We’ll tidy it now,” Ann promised. “If we all work together it’ll be done in no time.”
“Where’ll we put everything?” Miss Duley waved a hand at the stacks of empty tambour frames, messily folded lengths of fabric, overflowing boxes of trim, and unraveling spools of ribbon that had colonized the fringes of the workroom.
“We’ll hide it.”
“I know,” Miriam said. “We will take those empty frames, the ones that are stacked in the corner, and set them up along the wall there, and then we will put whatever we must hide underneath. Then we will cover all of it with, ah . . .”
“We’ve those old sheets. The ones we’re meant to put up if we notice anyone trying to take pictures from the opposite windows.”
Then another idea occurred to Ann. “Do we have the samples back again from the queen and Princess Elizabeth?”
“Yes,” Miss Duley said promptly. “They’re in Mr. Hartnell’s office. I saw them there yesterday.”
“Let’s see if we can fetch them back. We can set them up on the table by the stairs, and we’ll put Mr. Hartnell’s sketches there, too. In case he wants to show them.”
“Good. Yes, that’s a splendid idea,” Miss Duley said. “Thank you, Ann.”
“Are you feeling better? Why don’t you stay put for now? We’ll take care of sorting everything out.”
It only took an hour to set everything to rights, although they had to work straight through their morning break to ensure everything was tidy and clean. Just as they were finishing there was another small panic, this time over everyone’s appearance. But Miss Duley, now herself again, was not to be moved. No, lipstick was not allowed under any circumstance, and no, the queen and other royal ladies would not notice what any of them were wearing.
“I can’t believe I’m going to meet the queen and I’m dressed in any old thing,” Ruthie complained. Ann, who was wearing her least favorite blouse and skirt under her coveralls, wisely said nothing.
“You’d look ridiculous if you were dressed up in your Sunday best,” Miss Duley reasoned. “Besides, they’re not coming to see us—they want to see the gown. We’ll be part of the scenery, no more.”
As soon as the workroom was ready for inspection, Miss Duley pulled out her box Brownie camera, which made Ann wonder if perhaps she had been hoping for a visit from the royal ladies, and had one of the girls from the sewing workroom take a photograph from the top of the steps of everyone at their places. That accomplished, there was just enough time for dinner, and for Ann to run over to the models’ cloakroom to return Carmen’s frock and coat.
“I promise to tell you everything later, but I have to rush back—the royals are coming.”
“I heard. Good luck! And don’t forget your coat.”
A dropped pin would have sounded like a falling anvil in the workroom that afternoon. Ann resolved to focus only on the work before her, and did so with such success that she nearly jumped out of her skin when the telephone on Miss Duley’s desk began to ring.
“Yes, Mrs. Price. Thank you. We’ll be ready.” Miss Duley set down the receiver and stood. “They’ll be here in five minutes. Please line up in front of the frames, ladies, and mind you don’t brush against them and knock off the coverings.”
They all did as she suggested, and then, frowning, she beckoned Ann and Miriam to come forward. “I want you to stand at your chairs. Just in case they wish to see a demonstration.”
Approaching Ann, her hands fluttering over her hair, Miss Duley asked worriedly, “How do I look?” She had added a white lace collar to her usual black dress, and her hair was in an even tighter bun than usual.
“Very nice,” Ann said. “Now off you go and I’ll make sure everyone is ready when the door opens.”
Miss Duley vanished out the door, they took their places, and Ann slowly became aware of how nervous she was. She even had to wipe her hands on her coverall several times. The younger girls broke into giggles after a few minutes of aching silence, but a good hard glare was enough to quiet them. At last they heard the noises of people in the corridor. The door opening, creaking on its hinges, and there were the queen and Princess Elizabeth and Queen Mary, and just behind them Princess Margaret and the Duchess of Gloucester. They stood at the landing for a long moment, and the queen looked down at all the girls with a dazzling smile.
Ann bent her knees into a curtsy, and the others followed but not quite at the same time, which made for a rather comical effect as their heads bobbed up and down at intervals. But the queen didn’t notice, or rather was too polite to take notice, and instead she and the others swept down the stairs and into the workroom.
Mr. Hartnell and Miss Duley and Mam’selle followed just behind, and he showed the royal ladies the samples that Ann and Miriam had worked, and explained that the gown itself was next door in the sewing workroom.