A few weeks ago I had a lovely chat with Canberra Times journalist Karen Hardy about writing Precious Things. Here’s the resulting article, which was syndicated across Fairfax newspapers last weekend:
By Karen HARDY
2 April 2016
Kelly Doust is the first to admit she has a weakness for vintage clothes.
She has always been intrigued by the history of a piece, who wore it, their story, and what first drew them to that dress or jacket.
“Ever since I was about 12 years old, I’ve been collecting old frocks,” says Doust. “I’d take whatever fashion magazine I could find to Vinnies and try and recreate certain looks.
“I’d find these amazing dresses which looked like they’d never even been worn and I’d wonder who the women were who owned them.”
But with the collecting comes the editing process – wardrobes “bursting at the seams” takes on a different meaning when it comes to fashion – and one day she was selling some pieces at a flea market and she found herself wondering about the new lives her old clothes might lead.
“One day I’ll write a book just like Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes, or the film The Red Violin, about a cheeky little frock who gets about and lives in more cities than I ever will. Wouldn’t that be fun?” she wrote on her blog later than afternoon.
A few weeks later, she received an email from a publisher friend asking her if she’d really be interested in such a project. And the seed for the novel Precious Things was planted.
As the author of several non-fiction books about vintage clothes, craft and recycling, including the best-selling A Life in Frocks: A memoir and The Crafty Minx: Creative recycling and handmade treasures, Doust had always dreamed of writing fiction.
“But I’m enough of a realist to know that fiction is a totally different process to non-fiction. I had all these lovely ideas and stories, but I didn’t have a solid plot, or any real idea of how to get from A to B.”
But then she stumbled across her hero piece. She was visiting her friend, artist Jessica Guthrie, who used to own a vintage clothing store, Coco Repose, and saw a beaded headpiece.
“I couldn’t stop thinking about it, it enchanted and inspired me,” Doust says.
“How many different adventures had it seen in its lifetime? It might have originally been a collar on a wedding gown, but then refashioned into a crown or a choker. It could have been worn as a bracelet wrapped around a girl’s wrist or added as a bodice detail to a latter-day dress. Or displayed as art upon the wall.”
In Precious Things, it becomes a collar, and we follow its journey from Normandy in 1891, as a young girl sews her wedding dress; to Shanghai, in the 1920s, where it belongs to a flamboyant circus performer; in the 1950s it belongs to an artist’s muse.
At the centre of the story, however is a totally modern woman, Maggie, an auctioneer, juggling marriage, children and a demanding job, who finds the crumpled, neglected collar in a box of junk and sets out to discover more about its past.
Doust loved researching the historical aspects of the novel, indeed is fascinated by how fashion reflects the changing lives of women through the ages.
“Through research I’d done for a previous book, Minxy Vintage, I’d already learned how intrinsic the link is between fashion and social change, and wanted to explore this further,” she says.
“It’s far more than just hemlines lowering or raising with the economy – the women of the 1920s chose to cast off the restrictive, corseted styles of the Belle Epoque in favour of a sportier aesthetic.
“This was championed by Coco Chanel in Paris fashion, but only occurred in the mainstream because women were finally entering the workplace and taking on men’s work.”
Doust is already working on a second novel which has many similar themes: family; women looking for love, direction and purpose; history and fashion.
“I think I’ll always weave my books around these themes to a lesser or greater degree because that’s what I love, and because the question of, ‘What am I going to wear today?’, is such an enduring, constant preoccupation for many of us.”