Behind The Chic

William Norwich

Currently the editor for fashion and interior design at Phaidon Press, William Norwich has an eye (a sparkling eye, in fact). Over the course of his career, he has written and edited for The New York Times Magazine, Vogue, Town & Country, Architectural Digest, and New York magazine. He’s just published his second novel, My Mrs. Brown, a lovely fairy tale about a modest Rhode Island widow who falls in love with an Oscar de la Renta suit. The opposite of a Cinderella story, the book is all about how clothes can make the womaninto her best self. We couldn’t agree more.

Q: What inspired you to write this story about an older woman?

The initial idea was not as inspired as I’d hope. There’s a book mentioned in”Mrs. Brown,” called “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris.” About eight years ago I bought a copy at a secondhand book store, and was charmed by it. In that book, which takes place right after World War II, Mrs. Harris sees a Dior Couture chiffon dress—it’s everything that was not in London for anyone at that time, regardless of their economic background. She is determined to go get that Dior dress. It became an intellectual exercise. What would that dress be now? I thought: it would be a suit; it would be tailoring.

Q: Why a suit, do you think?

I thought about how the fashion system pushes a Cinderella complex  on women—put this dress on and be transformed into someone else! I thought that it would be a real shocker if someone fell in love with a simple suit in order to express who she actually was. Today, great tailoring is the ultimate luxury. Only you know how well your garment is made because you’re in it. It’s also a supportive experience because it can pick you up, and literally hold you in. Tailoring is a wonderful thing.

Q: Why are clothes important?

Having beauty around you is not frivolous. It’s uplifting and empowering. The fantasy isn’t to become younger. It’s to be quickly seen as who you are right now.

That’s what struck me about Mrs. Brown. This fantasy of a suit enabled her. When I was working at the New York Times and Vogue, I would get asked all the time: “What can I wear? There’s nothing for me to wear.” This would come mostly from women over 45, 50, 60; women who have really fought to keep in good health. You would think that this woman would be the ideal customer, but she has been abandoned at many price points.

Clothing is to make yourself feel good, and to represent who you are, as a complete person. God-willing, you live long enough, you grow up, you become mature and then you can really be free. I have a friend who had a stroke recently. This morning, we all got a text message, “She’s having her hair done. She’s going to be okay.” And we knew she was going to be okay, because she asked for the hairdresser.

Q: What’s your favorite piece of clothing?

A good blue suit. It was from the ’80s, and it had a little touch of royal blue and also of navy blue so it added some lift. It could be worn in the day, because the fabric was not too precious: wool with some stretch. I loved the color. I used to travel a lot for work. I would just wear that suit and would change from a polo shirt to a button down and necktie. It just was always really comfortable. I would think to myself, “They like a short person.” That was truly my favorite suit.

Get your copy of this special book here. Photos by Elizabeth Cohen. 

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