Ask a woman to pick out a favourite dress from her wardrobe and you can be sure she’ll choose one not just for its design, but also for the memories invisibly woven into the fabric. Turning such recollections into tangible keepsakes is something entrepreneur Maggie Semple specialises in. In 2010, Semple – awarded an OBE in 2000 for her services to education – produced a book called Women, Fashion and Stories containing interviews with six inspirational women (including herself), interspersed with chapters on fashion history, spanning the postwar era to present day. Semple developed this idea into Behind the Seams – a luxury gift service that creates bespoke books telling the story of a favourite dress.
“The idea for Behind the Seams came about because we spent a year gathering stories from women describing their favourite item of clothing or accessory,” says Semple. “We have over 2,000 accounts, and one day a woman asked us to turn her story into a book that she could keep with her item. Soon after, a man commissioned us to write the story of his wife’s wedding dress and ordered several copies to give to family and friends when they renewed their vows.”
Now run from an office in Covent Garden, Maggie Semple Limited and its in-house fashion researchers have unearthed some wonderful stories: broadcaster Jan Leeming, for example, asked the team to investigate a butterfly dress she owned, designed by Gina Frattini, only to discover that Elizabeth Taylor had worn the same design when she married Richard Burton for the second time.
The bespoke books produced by the MSL team tap into women’s imaginations in a unique way, and Maggie understands exactly how and why dresses hold such singular meaning for their owners: “Women have amazing stories attached to their clothes. It doesn’t matter if it is new, not-so new, bought, a gift or inherited – there will always be a fascinating tale to tell.” Each book is an intimate gift – an objet d’étude resulting from fabric on skin.
Treasured garments hold stories that can delight a family for generations – as Vladimir Nabokov wrote, “The more you love a memory the stronger and stranger it becomes.”