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Lucy Adlington Introduces ‘The Red Ribbon’


On Monday 19th March, The Mount hosted Lucy Adlington, costume historian and writer of both non-fiction and Young Adult novels, as part of the York Literature Festival. There was a real buzz as School Hall quickly filled with an expectant audience. College I girls were kept busy serving teas and coffees, whilst the audience admired the 1940s dresses and coats displayed on the stage .  

Lucy, dressed in a smart 1940s swing coat and chic American hat, made a grand entrance onto the stage, jauntily swinging two authentic leather suitcases. These proved to be a real treasure trove, as Lucy produced Vogue paper patterns, parachute silk undies and even a miniature Singer sewing machine! She talked us through the lives of ordinary women in the pre-war years, who sewed, darned and knitted. before moving onto the story behind her new YA novel, The Red Ribbon, where these mundane domestic skills became the saviour of her heroine, Ella. 

 Ella is a Jew, transported to the mysterious Birchwood Camp-more commonly known as Auschwitz Birkenau. Her skills as a seamstress are the only thing that stand between her life and death. Lucy Adlington told the audience how she wanted to focus on love, hope and humanity in her novel. As she said ‘we all know of the mud, the terror, the smoking chimneys , the endless grey ash’ , but she wanted instead to focus on the bonds that knitted together an elite group of girls and women, who worked in a couture dress salon-in the midst of the horrors of Auschwitz. Set up by the wife of the Commandant, the workshop produced the latest Parisian fashions for SS guards and the wives of the SS officers.  

Lucy showed us a length of vibrant emerald green fabric- the material Ella, her heroine, chooses when she is forced into creating a dress for a high ranking guard-in less than a day. Bright colours-emerald, crimson and exotic fabrics-silks, satins and crepe de chine allow Ella and her friend, Rose to survive the endless grey horror of the camp. Inspired by the idea that some women celebrated the end of the war by making so called Liberation Dresses, Lucy’s heroine makes her own dress, of deep rose crepe de chine, using forbidden tools and materials, as rumours of the liberation become a reality. 

The audience was enraptured by Lucy’s accounts of Make Do and Mend, so-called Utility garments and the first-hand accounts of women who worked as seamstresses in the camps. The Little Apple bookshop, tweeted that the event was the highlight of the Festival so far. Verity in S9 was particularly impressed by the way Lucy Adlington adapted her talk to appeal to the multi-generational audience whilst Lily was intrigued by the way Lucy used garments to inspire her and create a narrative.