There’s no doubt that in these lockdown days, one of the things I’m missing most is wearing a frock. I can’t wait for the moment I’ll be able to crack one out and flounce up to town for a fancy lunch, or shimmy my way to a night of dancing.
I have some lovely dresses, but there are four that have major historical significance. The first is the midnight blue shot taffeta affair which I wore to a May ball in Cambridge in 1988 and felt utterly fabulous. Then there was my wedding dress that I based on a fifties dress of my aunt’s and the glamorous dress I had designed for my Platinum book launch, complete with rhinestones and a slit up to the thigh. And now this beauty – the dress that inspired a whole book.
When I was writing The Hidden Wife, which is set in Paris in 1928, I needed my character Vita to be immersed in the world of fashion and to learn the ropes from a real-life couturier. I didn’t want it to be Coco Chanel, as everyone knows so much about her, so I was very pleased when I came across an article in an old copy of Vogue about a designer called Jenny Sacerdote.
Looking up the company, I realised they still had a website and wrote, explaining that I was an author and asking for more information.
I had the most fantastic reply from Anne Vogt-Bordure, the CEO of La Suite Jenny Sacerdote and I jumped on the Eurostar to Paris to meet her.
Anne met me at the Gare du Nord and we hit it off immediately. She took me to Dreyfuss, the incredible material emporium I feature in the book and then to the Champs-Élysées where Jenny’s once famous salon is now a Marriott Hotel. Over lunch in an achingly cool terrace restaurant with a view of the Eiffel Tower, she told me Jenny’s story.
Jeanne AdèleBernard was quite a woman, it seems. Born in 1868 to a single mother, she showed early promise. Being very bright, she followed a path to academia, but at the of 39 she decided to open her own fashion house and styled herself as Jenny Sacerdote.
By the mid 1920’s Madame Jenny produced as many as 800 pieces a year, including coats, daytime dresses, wedding dresses, bathing suits and lingerie and it was actually Jenny who invented the ‘little black dress’ before Chanel. By 1928, she’d become a worldwide celebrity, and won the coveted Grand Prix de l’Elegance.
Everyone who was anyone came to her modern salon on Paris’s famous avenue, where I had my character Vita, looking in awe at the beautiful gates and then blagging her way inside for an interview. Vita even spots Hollywood starlet Mary Pickford, who was a big Madame Jenny fan. I have Vita looking through the visitors book, which really did include the cream of Parisian society, along with the sister and mother of Fred Astaire and even the Empress of Japan.
It was so brilliant to have these images and to be able to write Vita into this wonderful world. This is the sofa where she first meets debonaire Irving King, who Vita thinks might be the solution to all her problems (he’s not!).
In 1940 when the war came, Jenny, who didn’t have any descendants, closed the business and left Paris. It was the end of an incredible era.
But, inspired by Jenny’s fashion legacy Anne Vogt-Bordure revived the brand and in 2018 formed La Suite Jenny Sacerdote paying tribute to her name. Just like Jenny – movement is at the heart of the design.
Behind an unassuming door in one of those large Parisian buildings, Anne showed me into a flower garlanded courtyard where she has her studio. She showed me lots of old pictures of Jenny’s designs and her modern interpretations of them. The resulting dresses were just glorious.
This black dress was so chic, but I fell for this beautiful silk dress that is simply made for dancing.
It inspired the plot of the book, because in it, I have Vita at her interview with Jenny who asks Vita to decide where the braiding should be placed on this very dress. It’s a test that Vita passes and she joins Jenny’s team.
Writing my Stitch In Time trilogy has been such a good excuse for me to channel my inner-flapper girl. What a treat is is to have a dress that will always remind me of Vita and Paris. All I need now is a party…
For more information on these amazing dresses, please visit http://www.jennysacerdote.com
You can follow on Instagram @jennysacerdote
The Hidden Wife, by Joanna Rees is published by Pan Mac 18th March 2021. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hidden-Wife-Stitch-Time/dp/1529018870/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1615909106&sr=8-2