Loose threads

My Mother's Wedding Dress

Justine Picardie <em>Picador, 336pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 0330413066

Books about fashion, especially books about fashion that aim at cleverness, always make me feel inadequate. Justine Picardie has written a rambling, rather self-conscious memoir in which she uses old clothes - slinky Ghost dresses, red-soled slingbacks by Christian Louboutin and "pieces" by Versace - as jumping-off points to discuss lots of other things, including grief, the meaning of the colour black, and Charlotte Bronte.

According to Picardie, clothes are not only "the fabric of our lives"; they are a manifestation of "one's inner self". Is this true? If so, I am worried. Having tried to conjure up a few fashion memories of my own, all I could come up with was a beloved poncho (I expect Picardie hates ponchos almost as much as belted cardigans) and a pair of red dungarees I used to wear as a girl, which had a picture of the Road Runner on their bib and also, handily, a device for holding pens.

Oh, well. To be frank, I found My Mother's Wedding Dress completely mystifying. The press release describes it as a "fabulous treasure chest of a book", but to me it feels more like one of those mixed boxes of china you can pick up at auction. A few of the cups and saucers will be pretty, and match, but your box will also contain several random bits of brown Denby and a chipped gin bottle. All these vessels really have in common is that they are made from clay. Similarly, all that ties Picardie's essays together is a vague connection - at times very vague indeed - to the semiotics of clothes; and while this is not to say that some of them are not thoughtful and intriguing, others appear to be in here only to provide extra padding. How else to account for rehashed accounts of magazine interviews that she once did with Donatella Versace and Helmut Lang? Or for her coquettish, wannabe-Diana-Vreeland forays into sartorial etiquette?

Picardie is a careful, rather mannered writer. She is at her best when she is tel- ling stories about her family: her South African grandparents; her mother, who married in black. There is a lovely chapter that begins with an old family tale about Charlotte Bronte's ring, a gold band containing three garnets, which was said to have passed to Picardie's mother from an ancestor, a writer called Clara Lucas Balfour. It was later stolen in a burglary. Her imagination caught, Picardie is soon off to Haworth in hot pursuit of the truth.

This is interesting: poor Clara, leading light in the Temperance movement, whose husband was a drinker and whose son killed himself by swallowing acid in a public park, and who may or may not have met the author of Jane Eyre. Did she buy the ring in one of the sales of Bronte relics that took place after Charlotte's death in 1855? Picardie has no idea, really; but she loves the thought that the muslin Charlotte wore on her wedding day recalls the muslin that Clara stitched as a girl, when she was saving up for an education.

A fragile circle yet, somehow, Picardie closes it. Elsewhere, her gossamer conjunctions are enough to drive you mad. From Ghost dresses with a capital "g" it's just a clunky hop to, well, ghosts, and then to Mrs Danvers in Rebecca. From a lusted-after Helmut Lang coat we move to a discussion of feathers. I found it unfathomable, this spinning between Cathy Earnshaw of Wuthering Heights (who tears open her pillow with her teeth to reveal the pigeon feathers that she believes are keeping her from dying) and the Chanel atelier that provides feathers for couture houses.

And what do I care that Picardie has mislaid a pair of brown linen Nicole Farhi trousers? Big deal. I once left a pair of pyjamas at a hotel in Atlanta. Even she seems to realise that some of this is - at best - a diversion. "Anyway, I'm straying a long way from the point," she writes, after comparing her mother's tent at Greenham Common to the patterns on a cherished velvet jacket.

Fashion is, I admit, an impossible subject. In the main, it is best not to take it too seriously; it's only frocks, after all. (The one person who can get away with being high-minded about it is Judith Thurman of the New Yorker, who combines real knowledge with sharp writing, a passion for clothes and a dry wit.) This is why the Vreeland approach works so well: DV cared deeply about, say, navy, but her silly diktats were always layered with joy.

Picardie is clearly aware of this, but her wry little advice columns - "bananas are not necessarily amusing as T-shirt prints" - sit oddly with the earnest delving she does elsewhere. I used to work on a fashion magazine, and if I learned anything at all during those excruciating days, it is this: some things are meant to be written about, to be picked over and pulled apart. But a skirt is just a skirt and a jacket is just a jacket, and a nice, big photograph of them - plus a list of stockists - will probably tell you everything you need to know.

Rachel Cooke writes for the Observer