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Fashion and Feminism in the 1940’s: A Review of The Dress in the Window

Fashion and Feminism in the 1940’s: A Review of The Dress in the Window

The Dress in the Window by Sofia Grant

Fashion, fame, and family. These are just some of the themes that come to mind while reading the historical drama The Dress in the Window by Sofia Grant. However, as the story progresses, it becomes clear there is another message prevalent in the novel as well: feminism.

Despite taking place post-WWII, this is not a whirlwind wartime romance or a Norman Rockwell-esque depiction of domesticity. Instead, we are presented with three complex female characters and the personal struggles each must face, as they begin to see themselves as more than just the dutiful wives and mothers society wants them to be.

Dynamic Female Characters

Jeanne is a talented seamstress whose sweetheart died in the war. Since they were never formally engaged, she is left with no pension or support when he dies, and she must rely on her sister’s mother-in-law to take her in. She believes she will never love again and that her sister, niece, and mother-in-law are the only family she will ever have. During the day, she works as a typist in downtown Philadelphia. She knows she is capable of more.

Peggy, Jeanne’s younger sister, is a war widow. She and her husband were married for only a few months before he shipped off, never to return. Unlike Jeanne, Peggy is uncertain that she was ever cut out to be a wife and mother.  Yet, she now has a six-year-old to raise. She feels she has nothing in common with her daughter except their similar artistic temperament. Peggy’s favorite pastime since she was young was to draw. As an adult, she uses all her free time to sketch dresses even more unique than the ones being designed in London or Paris. She dreams of working in fashion in Philadelphia or New York. Perhaps one day she’ll even see her own designs on the runways there.

Thelma is Peggy’s dutiful mother-in-law, but there is much more to the middle-age widow than meets the eye. Having lost both her husband and her son, she finds comfort in caring for her daughter-in-law and granddaughter. She wants to throw herself into creating a better life for her son’s only child. Yet, she wasn’t completely honest when she led Peggy to believe she had the money to do so. Her bookkeeping skills have just barely kept the family from financial ruin for years. Even when her husband was alive, he spent more time drinking than contributing to the household. As a result, Thelma has secrets even Peggy and Jeanne don’t know.

Career vs. Family vs. Sense of Self

While the book gets off to an initially slow start, each woman will have her own major plot twist over the course of the novel. As the past is revealed, Jeanne, Peggy, and Thelma each deal with their self-identity as sisters and mothers, as lovers, and as career-women. And they will find themselves capable of much more than they ever imagined.

The only men to be found in these three women’s worlds are minor characters. The plot focuses on the relationship Jeanne, Peggy, and Thelma have with each other and just how messy and complex female relationships can be, especially when these woman are your family.

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Is it possible to follow your dreams and still fulfill your sense of duty to your family? This is the question that each of these woman must ask herself. Each will come up with her own answer. For, as Sofia Grant reveals over the course of her novel, there is no one answer to this question.

However, through it all, each woman will find out new things about herself, about sex and love, and about her ability to pursue new horizons and provide for herself in a way that she only thought a husband could. America in the 1940’s is still a man’s world, but it is quickly changing. Jeanne, Peggy, and Thelma will be a part of that change.

 

Rachel Ginder

Rachel is a bookaholic who dreams of reading for a living, but has recently and quite comfortably settled for working as an editorial assistant at an East Coast university press. She spends her free time writing book reviews and is on a constant quest to find the perfect setting for novel reading. Her current favorite is sitting on a bench at her local park, where she alternates between fantasizing she is either Anita from 101 Dalmatians or Rory from Gilmore Girls. When not pretending she’s a fictional character, she can occasionally be lured indoors with a large cup of chai tea or earl grey (she’s not picky).
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