The Winter Dress by Lauren Chater – a dress has survived, but what does it mean in this powerful historical novel

The Winter Dress by Lauren Chater

This is a book about a dress. A once beautiful dress lost and rediscovered, that becomes a deeply important symbol for two women living in different centuries, different places, but both dealing with losses that are beyond their comprehension. In this serious book of women’s lives, the two narrative threats blend to answer questions that are deeply felt even if they cannot be easily spoken of by those most deeply involved in the tales. Based on a real life discovery of textiles in 2014 off the coast of Texel, an island in North Holland, this is a novel of a clothing historian – more than a fashion historian, who feels a deep need to go beyond the details of style and therefore date, and try to discover who owned the dress, why it was carefully stored on a ship so that it survived centuries, and why it is so important. It has much to say about the nature of women’s lives in both the seventeenth and twenty first centuries, the ways families work, the tension and links between the closest of relations. It also speaks of the importance of physical objects, of personal clothing, to open doorways into the past.

Jo Baaker in contemporary times is searching for answers, but in the process discovers much about herself and those around her. Anna Tesseltje’s life has been shaped in the 1600s by her birth date coinciding with a downturn in her family’s fortunes, by her feelings of inadequacy in the face of the challenges she and her family have faced, by a world of wealth and security that she once knew but now can only aspire to in the lives of others. The two women are separated by time and circumstance, but Jo begins to discover what may well link them. The book begins in the blaze of light that is contemporary Australia, of a life there which could be rich in so many ways. Jo is asked about the “old hurts” which have pursued her from the island of Texel where she was born, grew to be a teenager, and where she was orphaned. Her curiosity about the people, the women who wore clothes at particular stages in history has become the foundation for her academic life; the discovery of this remarkable survivor, a yellow silk dress, is the first substantial reason she has found to return to Texel, the place which seems grey, damaged and confining. Excited by the implications of the discovery of the dress, partly as an artifact, but also by the insight it may offer into a departed world.

Anna is a young woman whose life has been traumatic and is scarred by losses. She is first seen living with her older sister who had been destined for a good marriage, but now the two girls are barely surviving in a poor area by washing the clothes of others.  As the yellow silk dress is rediscovered it speaks to them both not only of its owner, their late mother, but also a way of life, a time of hope and excitement. As Anna finds herself facing new challenges, she realises that the silk dress may assume more importance than she ever thought possible.

One of this book’s great strengths is the more minor characters but who emerge as strong influences in the book. This is a novel that reveals immense research, into the possibility of a woman artist who was at the centre of many circles in the 1600s, into the nature of women’s clothes as handed on, passed around, status symbols and central to self-image. It also has much to say about how family links, devotion, care can take different forms, but also how injuries are perceived. This is a well plotted and paced book, blending and interweaving lives and motivations. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book and recommend it as a powerful read.