Months before Meghan Markle, the future Duchess of Sussex, walked down the aisle at St. George’s Chapel, finally revealing her Givenchy wedding gown, British bookies twice halted their betting pools over which couturier had received the coveted commission. Their concern was over a flurry of bets for two particular designers, which suggested there might be leaks coming from within Kensington Palace.
This isn’t the only recent context in which royal nuptials have inspired false rumours. In Jennifer Robson’s fifth novel, the Toronto author and academic imagines a story in which greed and anticipation over Princess Elizabeth’s dress design leads to a horrifying personal betrayal.
The era-flipping, postwar novel starts in 1947, when Ann Hughes, a trained embroiderer with the real-life London fashion house Hartnell, is assigned to the top-secret team behind Princess Elizabeth’s wedding dress and veil. Speculation over the design is rampant, in particular because fabric rations are still enforced, even for royalty. Britain is still rebuilding and many believe the wedding to be a sign of renewal.
Ann, whose brother died during the Blitz, works on the gown’s elaborate stitched detailing alongside Miriam Dassin, a young French immigrant and Holocaust survivor. Although they soon become roommates and inseparable friends, both women are emotionally guarded and reluctant to share their personal histories.
Their stories are intertwined with that of Toronto journalist Heather Mackenzie, who, 69 years later, is bequeathed by her grandmother a box containing a swatch of intricately embroidered fabric. Heather discovers that the delicate embroidery features similar motifs to the ones that graced Queen Elizabeth’s gown. The box also houses a photo of her beloved Nan posing with Miriam, who is now a famous textile artist. Mystified by the significance of the box’s contents, Heather flies to London hoping to uncover the secrets behind the fabric and why her grandmother never spoke of this period in her life.
Given the book’s title and the cover image of Queen Elizabeth’s wedding, one anticipates more of a regal presence from The Gown, which might disappoint hardcore monarchists. There are only brief glimpses of royalty, which serve to ground the story in the day-to-day trials of these women’s quiet, working-class lives. (It’s more Downton Abbey than The Crown.) Robson’s meticulous details of the embroidery and dressmaking process, drawn from extensive research and interviews, are fascinating. In fact, Miriam’s and Ann’s stories are so well woven, they at times overshadow Heather’s quest to learn about her family history. The contemporary storyline does play a significant role in illuminating the lingering intergenerational effects of trauma, but a romantic relationship that appears late in the book, while lovely, feels a little too convenient.
At its heart, The Gown is a charming story, less about the bonds of matrimony than the necessity of friendship.