Grace: A Memoir Book Review

Featured photo credit.

GraceWhen the documentary The September Issue, about the production of Vogue’s biggest issue of the year, came out in 2009, the unexpected star of the film was Grace Coddington, creative director. Audiences loved seeing her sparring matches with Anna Wintour, her love of beauty and fashion, and her quirky English personality. Fast forward to 2012 when Ms. Coddington is asked to write a memoir of her life in fashion. The resulting Grace: A Memoir – $19.66 came out last fall, and is a jewel of a book.

The book begins with Ms. Coddington’s childhood in Wales. The writing is surprisingly good–throughout the book, she refers to the fact that she’s never been good with words, but prefers to communicate with images instead. But the writing in this book is very competent, despite her self-deprecation. She uses simple language, vivid description, infused with classic British humor and asides.

The books moves through her early years, and on to her experience as a working model in London (models were expected to do their own makeup and hair, and thus hauled suitcases on wheels everywhere, filled with beauty products), the fashion of the 50s, 60s, and 70s (mini dresses, YSL suits, and tight jeans), the parties she attended and the fabulous people she met (Mick Jagger, Vivienne Westwood). She writes with enthusiasm about this time in her life.

“I hung out at all the Kings Road hot spots, which were full of experimental young artists, writers, people working in advertising agencies, fashion, and film, and I found it all madly existential.”

The book progresses to her two marriages (and subsequent divorces), love affairs, first jobs in the fashion industry, British Vogue, American Vogue, working with Anna Wintour, and so on. The first half of the book has an intuitive structure–chronological. By the time we get to Ms. Coddington’s adult years, the structure unravels a bit. It moves between past and present, arranged by topic now instead of chronology. One chapter is a list of all the photographers she’s ever worked for, with a brief description of each. The writing is lackluster in this section, and seems like she’s just trying to assemble the facts of her life, instead of providing interesting and relevant stories about each person.

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I was also disappointed by her stoicism and reserve at points. When writing a memoir, you have to divulge personal information, and you have to allow the reader to enter into your emotional stomping ground. She clearly felt uncomfortable with this. When describing an incident that happened to her when a mob of Chelsea football fans were rioting in the street in front of her apartment, she writes:

“No matter how gently I tried inching my car through the mob, they grew more and more incensed until all of a sudden my little Mini, with me inside, was lifted off the ground and thrown heavily on its side. Although I wasn’t injured, I was seven months pregnant by Albert at the time, and the next day I suffered a miscarriage. This turned out to be the only time in my life that I was able to conceive. The incident was one of the most traumatic of my life.”

There is never another word about the miscarriage or her infertility. This felt like a missed opportunity. Clearly she wants to acknowledge this formative event in her life…but she doesn’t go on to say another word about it. I’m sure other readers felt disappointed that she’d reveal a little nugget like that, especially one that describes a basic human experience–loss, and then withhold any further insight on the matter. She does the same thing when talking about her family–hinting at marital discord between her parents, and her father’s possible depression.

Overall, though, I loved this book, especially the first half. The strength lies in her descriptions of life lived in other times and places, and the way those times and places interacted with fashion and style. Wales, Paris, London, and New York are all delightfully fleshed out both in the present, and in past decades.

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“Every…night, we could be found dancing (to a twitch form of early French pop music called ye-ye) until dawn in the fashionable club New Jimmy’s, before rushing off to work the next morning. I wore extra-small children’s sweaters in Shetland wool purchased at Scott Adie in London that were all the rage among the French fashion elite, and very, very tight Newman jeans [you had to lie on the floor and energetically wriggle your way into them] that were made of paper-thin cotton velvet or needlecord and came in a huge range of wonderful colors.”

Great, right? Evocative and interesting. Another bonus in this book is the large collection of personal and modeling photos from Ms. Coddington, as well as magazine spreads she designed, and even little sketches she drew. I highly recommend for lovers of fashion, nostalgia, and even those who enjoy travel writing would find this book enjoyable. A final nugget of sartorial wisdom: “To me, fashion falls into one of two categories. It can be instantly appealing and you would like to wear it; or it is something you wouldn’t necessarily wear but it is driving fashion forward.”

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