Schmattes – Lesley Sharon Rosenthal

Suzie Eisfelder
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When I found this book I almost cheered. It’s a different book to what I thought it would be and I’m still trying to decide if that’s a good thing or not. It has some of my family stories in it and I kind of got the impression it would be a history of Flinders Lane and the fashion industry. Instead it’s just a collection of the stories surrounding the fashion industry. It mostly includes Flinders Lane as that was the centre of the fashion industry for so long. Reading the cover with the words “Stories of fabulous frocks, funky fashion and Flinders Lane’ gives you all that you need to know. I got the wrong impression when the book was published way back in 2005. But enough of me, let’s look at the book.

It has so many stories, enough to make any fashion conscious person weep for joy. There are stories about the beginning of many fashion labels and designers, stories about people just starting out as sales representatives and stories about the closing down of many businesses. Schmattes is a Yiddish word meaning rags, and although this means the fashion industry in Flinders Lane was being referred to as the rag trade it actually meant far more than that. It meant family, friends, and competitors who would socialise after hours.

This book took me much longer to read than it should. I almost gave up on many occasions only persisting because I wanted to see which family members would be featured. As it turned out there was some family mentioned I hadn’t expected and others glossed over that I had expected. The reason this book took far too long is because it needs a good solid proofread.

I don’t like to talk about the negative aspects of books. Generally, it’s just me being judgmental about the one or two typos I find in a book. Unfortunately, this was far worse and I feel it would make a good object lesson for any author, or aspiring author, out there.

Typesetting makes the book easier on the eye. If you have a talented typesetter then they can make any book really flow even if the reading material is very boring. As an author you can facilitate that by using your software wisely. Don’t use your space bar at the beginning of each paragraph, make sure to use the Tab function. You can set this globally by going into the Paragraph settings of your file and setting the first line to indent. What this means is that when you hit Enter to start a new paragraph the software will automatically indent your new paragraph consistently. What I found in this book is that indenting in paragraphs was not consistent. Some had no indentation at all, while others had far less than they should. On some pages I could look down the left margin and see several different types of indentation. All of this makes it hard to know when an old paragraph ends and a new paragraph starts.

Using proper quote marks makes it easy for the reader to know that the words you’re using are someone else’s and not your own. There was so much inconsistency in this book I struggled to figure out who was saying what. Some quotes were italicised while some were in quote marks. At some stage there were entire stories that were italicised but they sounded as if the author had written them.

Typos drive me banananananananas. Deliberate typo for emphasis, although some people will also get the reference and correct me on the number of letters. I called a friend out on the typos in his book once. He told me he tries to ensure he has no more typos than Stephen King. I haven’t read a Stephen King book since then to find out how many typos this means a book should have. I don’t like any typos, I’m going to be combing my books with a fine-tooth comb to ensure there are none and I’ll endeavour to have a good proofreader to ensure I’m write (right). In this book the typos varied from the wrong word choice to the letters switched around. There were far more than I’m comfortable with and reading them made me stop and yell. Essentially, it interfered with my reading.

A good proofreader would have noticed all of these things I’ve mentioned and brought them to the attention of the author. I’m assuming this book was not proofread by an outside party. I’m also assuming this was skipped deliberately. Schmattes was published with the help of a grant. Grants have deadlines to ensure people actually complete the project. I’ve just applied for a grant for my synagogue, and we had to give a starting date and completion date, with the completion date being no more than three years from the start date. If Rosenthal was having trouble getting the book published by the deadline then I can imagine a proofread would have been omitted. And bearing in mind this book is made up of anecdotes and interviews with many people, then it might be hard to pin people down to an interview time. I’m finding pinning people down to interview them is sometimes challenging, sometimes they don’t want to be interviewed, other times they’re happy but finding a time is an interesting challenge. And if Rosenthal proofread her own book then that’s a no-no also, I’ve just glanced through this article and taken out an extra comma, something that is easily missed as an author generally sees what they’re expecting to see and not what is really there.

I do wonder about some of her research. My uncle’s story about standing in a shop for seven hours not sure how to approach the counter and ask for the buyer was interesting. But I have a personal insight into this story. I can’t imagine my uncle standing there, uncertain, for seven hours. Nor can I imagine shop assistants leaving someone to stand still for seven hours. I wouldn’t put it past my uncle to have totally exaggerated the length of time he stayed there waiting. I can’t ask him as he died about fifteen months ago, and I suspect he would have corroborated the seven hours. But I do have thoughts about that story’s veracity.

If you have some interest in fashion or history then this is an interesting book to read. I love how it has my grandfather’s story of making up his own tartan, McBlack, so he could sell skirts or kilts. Yes, he got told off and stopped making it. But you also get some big names such as Prue Acton, this shows how she started young. And, as readers without the insight into the industry that I have you get to believe all the stories, most people don’t have relatives who grew up in the business. I love how Rosenthal talks about my great-grandfather who started in the schmattes industry, making his son and later on his grandson interested. Often these were family affairs, going down the generations. I have some things from the family business in my house including a jumper, a size 16. This size 16 jumper illustrates how the fashion industry has changed its sizes. I swear it’s no more than a current size 12, but possibly a 10.

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