Friday, July 4, 2014

Designing Heroes

I've been reading the latest volume in Loretta Chase’s Dressmakers series and enjoying the clothes. The three Noiret sisters run a high-class dressmaking establishment in 1830s London and the gowns play an active role in the stories – beyond being removed by the heroes. Readers of The TwoNerdyHistoryGirls blog know how devoted Chase and her cohort Isabella Bradford are to costume history.
It got me thinking about dress designers as heroes: As a Project Runway aficionado I know there’s a token straight guy in every season. A quick google of “straight fashion designers” brought up Roberto Cavalli, Tommy Hilfinger, Ralph Lauren, Oscar De La Renta, and Christian Lacroix, to name a few. To get historical (as you do), Charles Worth, the father of haute couture, was married with children. 
The point of this exercise is not to make a point about stereotyping in the fashion industry, but rather to wonder why designer isn’t a suitable job for a romance hero. I could remember only one––a book by Mary Burchell I had read decades ago. An appeal to Twitter gave me the name of the Burchell––Under the Stars of Paris––and one other title, thanks to Fiona Marsden––the aptly named Designing Man by Rachel Lindsay. A quick trip to Amazon and a week later I had both volumes in hand for an all-too-brief orgy of reading.
I’m glad I read Designing Man first because it’s the lesser book. Originally published by Mills & Boon in 1964, it was reissued as a Harlequin Presents in 1979. I think some updating had taken place––I’m fairly sure people weren’t drinking margaritas in London in the early 60s­––but the heroine’s situation is quite advanced. Alix Smith runs her own public relations business and makes it very clear she enjoys her work and doesn’t long to be married. She has a would-be boyfriend, who is a successful architect, and a male assistant of whom she is very much the boss.
The title could just as well be Designing Men because Alix is hired by the fashion house of Duval whose founder, Henri Duval, is at loggerheads with his son Paul. Henri, who has failed to move with the times, creates lavish mother-of-the-bride type outfits for an aging clientele; Paul’s garments are innovative and modern. Alix gets her actress friend Dina to wear Duval clothes in her new play but of course she picks Paul’s designs. The rivalry between father and son is exacerbated when both appear to be pursuing Dina. Someone steals the new Duval collection at the last minute and private information about the family is sold to a gossip column. Paul, who didn’t want his father to hire her, seems to blame Alix for the problems.
I appreciate that Paul is not a typical hero. Oddly, he is several times described as resembling a faun––I’m not altogether sure what this means. Here is his first appearance:
“Where Henri Duval was a powerful six-footer, his son was slight in build and only a few inches taller than herself; where the father was blond, with a florid complexion and firm voice, the son was pale and brown-haired, with a quiet voice and the faintest suggestion of a stammer.”
Paul is no pushover, however and I liked him a lot. I just wanted more of him. Things start to heat up when he makes Alix a gorgeous gown for a big party. (There’s a hint, girl! He likes you!) Then someone is killed and the story veers off into a whodunit.
Or faun?

I enjoyed the book for the characters, the setting, and quite a decent murder mystery, but the romance is a little thin. While I’m all for a bit of plot in my romances, I want to see the hero and heroine fall in love. They don’t spend enough time together for my taste, and once it is clear they are attracted to each other, the obstacles thrown in their way seem contrived.

In Mary Burchell’s enormously entertaining book, our heroine Anthea Marlowe, stranded in Paris with only 50 francs to her name, falls into a job at Florian’s couture house. Anthea is renamed Gabrielle for modeling purposes and she closes the show in the wedding dress, designed by Monsieur Florian for a girl of her type who broke her leg.
Anthea is suffering from pride: her father has remarried a woman called Millicent––“the type of good-looking, sophisticated, slightly malicious person who always amused him”––and her fiancé Michael has ditched her for another woman. She isn’t in danger of starvation but neither does she wish to go home to London looking pathetic. The job at Florian saves her and she finds she loves the work and the place: the excitement of showing the Collection, the vendeuses, the sewing women, the other models (except the bitchy Héloïse).
Dior gown, 1954, just because
And then there’s Florian, the creative genius behind the operation. Like Paul, he does not at first appear typical hero material: “a slight, fair-haired man with beautiful hands, thinning hair and the air of an exhausted and impatient schoolboy.” He is also 38 to Anthea’s 21, a fairly typical age difference in books of that era. Make no mistake, Florian is a raging alpha. He is dictatorial, ruthless, and not always very nice; the pages fairly crackle whenever he appears. He treats Anthea well, protecting her from some of the salon politics, but initially his kindness is almost whimsical. Anthea admires and respects her boss, but she’s still getting over Michael and she has a new admirer in British diplomat Roger (“solid, dependable, a darling––the stuff of which good husbands were made.” In other words, a romance dead end.)
Anthea is a wonderful heroine, a little bit naïve but never stupid or spineless. She prefers to think the best of people and accepts Florian’s careless generosity at face value, until he uses her in a malicious plot against his opera singer ex-mistress. This involves her wearing a white mink cloak to a performance of Tosca. (Can you tell how much I love this book?) When Anthea catches on to Florian’s attempt to upstage the diva, she ruins the plot and tears a strip off him for his poor behavior.
After that, of course, Florian is a goner. It takes Anthea a bit longer to realize her feelings: “In all the world there was no other dress house where Florian would come in––worn and impatient, smiling and indulgent, sardonic and amusing, arrogant and brilliant.”
But Florian, besides thinking he’s too old and cynical for her, believes her in love with Roger. We don’t get his point of view, but Burchell manages to convey the progress of his feelings to the reader while concealing them from the despairing heroine:
Odette had once declared that he could be a monster. She had also spoken of his occasional quick cruelty. But Anthea felt she could have forgiven all those theoretical faults, if only he had not been so coolly, monumentally indifferent.
Another 1954 Dior. Green!
The declaration is beautiful. Florian thinks she wants to go back to England with Roger; she thinks he wants her to go. Terribly hurt, she asks why he wants to get rid of her and forces him to admit his feelings. Finally, kisses.
I absolutely loved Under the Stars of Paris. Loved, loved, loved. Originally published by M&B in 1954 (Harlequin 1978), the fashions gave me delicious New Look vibes. I cannot tell you how much I want the “dress of stiffened lace in an indescribably beautiful shade of iridescent green” that plays a dramatic role in the plot. (Bitchy Héloïse misleads Anthea into borrowing the gown for a party. Florian sees her in the illicitly borrowed dress and someone spills red wine on it. Florian spirits her upstairs where he rips away the stained lace, removes a panel from the skirt, and drapes a new bodice on the gown in about five minutes. Now there’s a useful man.)
Burchell is a delightful writer with a nicely acerbic turn of phrase that keeps me smiling throughout. Her secondary character are well drawn and nuanced. Florian addresses Anthea as “petite” and “mon enfant” which I usually dislike but, given the age difference and the fact that she is his employee, I didn’t mind it here. I believe in their HEA and know that Anthea will be no doormat. In the last scene, when a senior employee disturbs the declared lovers, we get a sharp Burchell observation. “In her bright, knowing, already respectful glance, Anthea suddenly saw herself reflected, not as Gabrielle, but as Madame Florian.”

I am a definite convert to designing heroes. I am told that Rose Lerner's historical A Lily Among Thorns has a tailor hero; I look forward to the book's re-release in September.  If you know of any other titles, please let me know.


  1. I've read a more recent HP about designers (by Michelle Reid or somebody like that) but the hero may've just owned the company rather than being a designer himself.

    And this may be a longshot because I've only seen the movie. In Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, I remember her hero being a designer. I've no idea how close to the book the movie is though.

  2. @MaryK. Owning the company sounds more likely! Megan Mulry's fabulous hero Eliot of R is For Rebel owns a fashion company.

    I'd forgotten Miss Pettigrew - like you I only saw the movie. He designed lingerie, yes?

  3. I don't know. I remember a fashion show and something about a scarf. I got the book after seeing the movie. Guess it's time to read it.

  4. Now suppose we have an ex-Marine who inherits a fashion house. He wants to run it on military lines and the designers, etc., are having trouble with that. However, he is also used to thinking outside the box, improvising for new situations, and comes up with great fashion designs.
    Pity I only write historicals.

  5. Hey Lilian, I think you should turn your talents to contemporary. I would totally read a book about a Marine turned fashion designer!

  6. I'm glad you enjoyed them. I just reread both of them after our discussion and agree with you. One of the things I have noticed in older romances is that the faun like hero or slender hero is quite common. They don't all have to be big broad shouldered guys. When you think of some of the movie stars of the time like Leslie Howard and Dirk Bogard who are slight of build but were still drooled over. Even Brad Pitt in his youth was not a big brawny guy.

  7. Oh and Elizabeth Ashton did a male couturier in 1970 in "Parisian Adventure." Not as good as Florian of course.

  8. @Fiona - Are most of the older romances English (i.e. Mills & Boon)? I'm wondering if they have a taste for less brawny heroes. I like a variety myself - just fine with the slender guys.

    There's a Goodreads review of Under the Stars by a reader who claims not to have known who the hero was for much of the book. I think it must have been the thinning hair that put her off because I thought it was clear from the start that Florian was the man.

    Thanks for the tip on the Ashton. French again!

  9. I think it follows trends. In the sixties and seventies there were plenty of Gregory Peck, Rock Hudson style heroes. It was really in the 70's we got more of the Mediterranean Greeks and Italians. But Ida Pollock certainly wrote a lot of slighter built heroes though she did write some tall ones in among them. But most of the ones I read are English writers so perhaps they are less inclined to expect big brawny heroes. Except for Violet Winspear. The bulk of her heroes were tall dark and handsome and Mediterranean.

  10. I saw that review too. Perhaps it was the description put her off but even the first time I read it I knew it was going to be Florian. Burchell often did competing male attention for the heroine. In the sequel, Roger Senloe was competing with another man who the heroine thought she was in love with the whole time. Burchell also gives her heroes some less than attractive traits. Sulky boys in love with tarty bitches probably don't appeal these days but she wrote a few.

  11. If you are really keen, you might want to look at Roberta Leigh's Sara Gay series. It's a young adult series of four (I think) written under Janey Scott. It follows Sara through her career as a model. I haven't read it yet but there seem to be two men. Peter the photographer and Marc Donnell the designer.

  12. I wonder whether the older fashion for less brawny heroes is a remnant of the association of brawny physiques with lower-class laborers? The slight-of-build heroes tend to be upper-class and cultured.

  13. Thanks for all the information, Fiona. You are a vintage romance maven!

    @ Elinor - that's a very interesting point.