The Secret Lives of Dresses by Erin McKean

Title: The Secret Lives of Dresses
Author: Erin McKean
Pages: 292
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Release Date: February 10th, 2011
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Source: Personal Copy

Life couldn't be more plain for twenty-year-old Dora. Raised by her grandmother Mimi, whose love of vintage clothing was not passed on to her jeans and t-shirt wearing granddaughter, Dora's lack of interest extends further than just dresses. With few college dreams or career aspirations, Dora accepts an offer to attend Lymond College in Boston after being persuaded by Mimi and the generous scholarship awarded by the school. Close to completing her major in the exceptionally vague field of Liberal Studies, Dora stumbles upon a job at the campus coffee shop after being told that she would not have any on-campus summer employment. It is during one of her shifts that Dora receives a call from her grandmother's good friend Gabby informing her that Mimi is in the hospital after having a stroke.

As she races back to her hometown of Forsyth, NC to be by her grandmother's bedside, Dora must prepare to be confronted with memories of the past as she takes on the task of running the vintage clothing store. After a chance encounter with a customer, Dora makes a discovery that Mimi had kept a secret for so many years. Each of the glamorous, sexy, and elegant dresses has its own life story created by Mimi and given away to the new owner. With the help of Gabby and Conrad, a young contractor, Dora begins to question everything in her life that she had considered boring and begins to wonder if she can become the strong and confident person she was always meant to be.

After rereading my synopsis of The Secret Lives of Dresses by Erin McKean, I realize that this story was just plain...plain. I can't really describe how I felt about this book other than that it was nice. McKean has created a light and simple read with a straightforward plot. For me this was a case of judging a book by its cover gone wrong. Who wouldn't fall in love with the gorgeous yellow dress on the cover? Plus, the use of the pale green window frame makes the dress catch my eye even faster. The romantic in me wishes I had a closet full of dresses like this one and just as many places to wear them. I also love the idea of vintage clothes, especially those uber-expensive pieces that were so well taken care of they rival any new piece of clothing today. Oh the places they've been and the things they've seen. I'm obsessed with vintage postcards simply for the little glimpse they provide into someone else's story. Robert Olen Butler's short story collection Had a Good Time: Stories from American Postcards sits on my TBR shelf for that very reason. Ultimately, I picked up McKean's work based on the novel's idea and cover, which is something I rarely let myself do.

Overall, I breezed through The Secret Lives of Dresses and would recommend it as a book to read on an airplane or while waiting in line. The story was mostly enjoyable but not very memorable, and I think I received more joy from the act of reading rather than from the content. McKean played it safe with the narrative as it didn't pack any emotional punch. There should have been more focus on the dresses and their "secret lives," because the short stories that were included were pretty boring, and I found myself skimming these sections. For a book with this title, there could have been a lot more exploration of the idea that clothes can make a person: they help them fill a role or boost their confidence no matter their background or size. Instead, we're given a cute story with sterotypical characters and awful names (Maux, Con, Tyffanee? Come on!)

If you are looking for sweet, happy, safe read that can be consumed quickly and provides a slight jolt of sugary good feelings, then I would suggest possibly picking up The Secret Lives of Dresses from your local library.


  1. Oh, it sounds like this book could have done so much more with its premise and execution, and I can't say that I am really tempted to try it after having read your review. It seems like it was just sort of ho-hum. I do really appreciate your honesty though, and I do also really love the cover. That dress is beautiful!

  2. Wonderful review -- I too am in love with the cover and the premise -- so it's disappointing this book was just 'nice'.

  3. Sounds like an interesting book. Not one that I would pick up normally but having read your review I could definitely see myself taking it to the beach or, as you mentioned, reading it on an airplane. I do love that cover though!

  4. That cover definitely gets my attention, though I'm sorry to hear it didn't pack more of a "wow" factor. As a side note, I also collect vintage postcards (and postcards in general!) and just added Had A Good Time to my wishlist. Sounds like one I would enjoy!

  5. This sounds like a book to read at the beach. Sweet, but not memorable.


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