The Roaring Days of Zora Lily
Author: Noelle Salazar
MIRA Paperback Original
Publication Date: October 3, 2023
Set during a period of rapid social and technological change, The Roaring Days of Zora Lily follows a struggling young seamstress from her long nights sewing costumes in the smoke-filled speakeasies of Seattle to designing gowns for Hollywood’s biggest starlets.
2023, The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History: A costume conservator is preparing an exhibition featuring movie costumes from the 1920s to present day. As she gingerly places a gown once worn by Greta Garbo on a mannequin, she discovers another name hidden beneath the designer’s label, leaving her to wonder—who is Zora Lily?
1924, Seattle: Poverty-stricken Zora Hough spends her days looking after her younger siblings while sewing up holes and fixing hems for clients to bring in extra money, working her fingers to the bone just to survive. But at night, as she lies in the bed she shares with one of her three sisters, she secretly dreams of becoming a designer like Coco Chanel and Jeanne Lanvin.
When her best friend gets a job dancing in a club downtown, Zora is lured in by her stories of music, glittering dresses and boys. She follows her friend to the underground speakeasies that are at once exciting and frightening—with smoke hanging in the air, alcohol flowing despite Prohibition, couples dancing in a way that makes Zora blush and a handsome businessman named Harley. It’s a world she has only ever imagined, and one with connections that could lead her to the life she’s always dreamed of. But as Zora’s ambition is challenged by tragedy and duty to her family, she’ll learn that dreams come with a cost.
“Noelle Salazar captures the hazy, liquor-soaked days of the Jazz Age in this mesmerizing tale . . . of family, ambition, love, and self-discovery.” —Entertainment Weekly
Washington, DC, 2023
The fluorescent lights blinked on in a domino effect, one after the other, a faint buzzing sound filling the room as I stood squinting in the unnatural light.
I inhaled, taking in my small slice of heaven within the storied walls of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. The long room with its high ceiling, soothing taupe walls, and wood floors—weathered in spots from years of conservators standing and pacing as they labored over the works of great minds—brought a sense of peace as soon as I stepped inside.
The museum had been my happy place since I was a little girl, when my mother would walk with me from our baby blue–painted row house on Capitol Hill, her slender fingers wrapped around my pudgy ones. We’d wander past sprawling parks, melancholy monuments documenting history, to the austere but magical facade housing wonders my six-year-old eyes could barely comprehend. By the age of eight I knew all the regular exhibits like the back of my hand, and waited anxiously for the monthly newsletter that arrived in our mailbox, telling us what traveling exhibits we could expect next. It was one such exhibit, a gallery of gowns worn by British royalty, that had burrowed itself inside me in such a way that a dream was born.
“I’m going to work here one day,” I’d told my mother, pushing back a strand of dirty-blond hair as I stared up at a jewel-colored gown once worn by Queen Elizabeth the Second.
I was twelve.
I wanted to exist within these walls. It was my church, and I believed in its teachings wholeheartedly. I had drunk the water. Read the great books. And prayed to the gods of knowledge and creativity. I wanted to be part of whatever it took to bring history to life for others. And for the past nine years…that’s exactly what I’d done.
I stared at the scene sprawled out before me.
“Sanctuary,” I whispered, tucking a blond-highlighted strand of hair behind my ear.
Gleaming table after gleaming table sat covered in silk, satin, lace, and velvet. Gowns and dresses and blouses previously only seen on movie screens and in photographs now lay delicately in wait of tending to, their sparkle and sinew in contrast to the stark lights and tepid surroundings. Mannequins, my constant companions, stood at the ready, waiting for their moment.
Thread in every color imaginable, like a rainbow of rotund spool soldiers on a rolling rack, waited to be chosen. Needles in pincushions, strips of bias tape, shimmering appliqués, ribbons, seam rippers, clear drawers filled with buttons and clasps and snaps, and boxes upon boxes of straight pins, their colorful heads a happy bouquet of tiny plastic globes, were scattered across every surface, peeking from where they’d fallen to the f loor, rolled beneath furniture, and stuck—I bent to pull a pink-headed pin from the rug beneath my feet—in a variety of inconvenient places.
The door clicked open behind me and I smiled.
“Good morning, Sylvia,” a familiar voice said.
“Morning, Lu,” I said to the one member of my team who, like me, couldn’t wait to get to work.
Every day, my friend and fellow fashion-obsessed cohort, Lu Huang, and I arrived within minutes of one another, and a full half hour before anyone else. Working as conservators for the museum was a coveted get for us. A dream job that every morning caused us to rush from our respective homes, grabbing an insufficient breakfast on our way out the door, and wondering hours later why we were so hungry. We lost track of time constantly, surviving on coffee and bags of chips from the vending machine, and leaving friends and family waiting on us as we turned up late to holiday parties, dinners, and events we’d implored others to attend but couldn’t possibly get to on time, and having forgotten to blend the concealer we’d hurriedly dotted on in the train, with paint under our nails and bits of thread or glue on our jacket cuffs.
In Lu I’d found not only the perfect work companion, but a kindred spirit. Over the nine years we’d worked together, we’d enjoyed laughing over our shared love of no-nonsense ponytails, and waxing poetic about old films and vintage fashion. We sat in her living room or mine, rewatching the movies that had shaped us and sharing stories of our schoolgirl walls plastered with images of iconic women of the silver screen, while our schoolmates favored posters of half-clothed men. So, when the idea for the newest exhibit started floating around our superiors’ offices upstairs, we’d spent many a night poring over which films we’d choose if asked, and then deliberated, scrapped, and chose again until we had the perfect array.
Out of curiosity, we began to inquire with movie studios about the costumes we’d be interested in displaying, running into new obstacles with each call we made. Several times we chose a beloved film only to find half the costumes had been lost in a fire, were part of a decades-long legal battle, or were just plain lost—a travesty over which we consoled ourselves with a huge plate of nachos and a pitcher of margaritas. Eventually, the decisions about which movies to include boiled down to three simple things: Where were the costumes we’d need? Would they be available to us for the time required? And what kind of shape were they in?
Once we’d gotten the green light that the exhibit was on, we finalized our list, made the calls, gathered confirmations, and began the design for the wing the costumes would be shown in. And then we waited, barely able to contain ourselves as one by one the garments that would be featured in The Hollywood Glamour Exhibition arrived.
We chose two movies per decade, going back one hundred years to the 1920s. Every piece that had been worn by the female lead was sent to us from studios, museums, or estates. Once in our possession, my job as costume curator, along with my staff of seven, was to remove each gown or outfit from its protective garment bags or boxes, and go over it with a fine-tooth comb, looking for tears, stains, missing buttons, and the like. We’d been working for months. Some of the more intricate gowns needed extensive rebeading or sequin replacement, and many of the older pieces needing patching inside to hold the outside fabric together. In two cases we’d had to sew exact replicas of the linings, and then carefully fit them inside the original, giving it something to cling to, extending its life.
A pantsuit from the forties had lost an outside pocket and matching the fabric had been hell. The brim of an iconic straw hat that belonged to another outfit had been scorched by a cigarette and needed to be patched. Each garment presented its own set of unique problems, and we were giddy as we worked to solve each puzzle.
With our intention for each item to be viewed from all sides, it was crucial they looked as flawless as possible. Thankfully, my team were experts in their field, and excited at the opportunity to handle costumes worn by some of the most famous women in film history.
“Can’t believe we’re down to the final film,” Lu said, running a finger over a strip of fringe hanging from a black evening gown. “I think this batch is my favorite.”
I nodded, taking in the room of costumes from the 1928 film The Star. Each piece had been worn by the iconic Greta Garbo and was the epitome of elegance and class. And a notable diversion from the designer’s usual style.
“It’s so odd Cleménte changed her MO for this one film,” I said, tilting my head as I took in the distinct wide neckline featured in each of the eight pieces. Even a blouse and jacket had been designed to show off the actress’s collarbones. The pieces were alluring, but Cleménte had always been known for a more modest style.
Michele Cleménte had been a well-known designer in the ’20s and ’30s, her signature style demure, with higher necklines and longer hems. But for this movie, she’d completely diverged.
“It is strange,” Lu said, frowning. “The studio must’ve wanted something exact.”
“Then why hire her?” I asked. “Not that she didn’t do a lovely job. The clothing is exquisite. I’d wear them all now.”
“And look fab doing it.”
I felt myself blush with pleasure at the compliment. Being tall and willowy had its advantages. Unfortunately for me, I had neither the opportunity nor the bank account to wear clothes as fine as the ones before us.
“Thanks, Lu,” I said, bending to peer closer at the large white beaded star on the white satin gown that was to be the centerpiece for the entire show.
Aside from the star, the rest of the fabric had been left unadorned, letting the beaded element shine before one’s eye went to the skirt, which fell in soft overlapping layers to the floor. It was a stunning piece of art. But a confusing one. Because it
had no resemblance to any piece ever sewn before by Cleménte. At least not any piece I’d seen in my years of studying the different famous designers. It didn’t have her specific way of hand sewing or her distinctive technique of tying off a knot, or even her tendency toward geometric shapes. But it was the neckline that really threw me off. Cleménte had preferred to leave a lot to the imagination. It was her calling card during a time when everyone else was showing more skin. And yet for these, she’d completely gone off-script.
The rest of the crew arrived at nine on the dot and the quiet of the room rose to a dull roar as individual desk lights were turned on, loupes donned to scrutinize the tiniest details, and we all began to sew, glue, and chat our way through the day.
I glanced up and winced as my back protested from having been bent over a table for the past hour. Lu stood, her coat over her arm, by the door. Everyone else had vanished.
“What time is it?” I asked.
“Shit. How does that always happen?” I pulled the loupes from my head.
“You happen to be in love with a dress,” Lu said. “That’s how.”
“Story of my life.”
“Explains so much.”
“I mean, it definitely explains why you haven’t had a date with a real live human in a while. Only—” She gestured to the mannequin beside me.
We laughed. She wasn’t wrong.
Lu was the only person who truly understood me. The only person besides my sister who I’d ever allowed to see inside my guest room closet where dozens of scavenged vintage dresses, trousers, jackets, and hats hung, waiting to be delicately cared for like the ones I lovingly handled at work.
“You gonna stay?” Lu asked, watching me as I looked back at the dress spread out before me.
I rubbed my eyes and stared at the tiny white beads I’d been replacing. We’d named the dress The Diaphanous Star, and I’d been carefully sewing on one bead at a time for the past two hours. It was a delicate task as the fabric they clung to was nearly one hundred years old. I had to work slowly and thoughtfully to keep from shredding it.
“Yeah,” I said, rotating my head. “I want to get this star done. How’d you do today?”
I glanced over at the black evening gown she was working on.
“I’m close,” she said. “You can barely see the snag in the back now, and I should be able to replace the bit of fringe that’s missing tomorrow.”
“Perfect,” I said, reaching over to wake my laptop and clicking on the calendar. “We are ahead of schedule, which bodes well should we have any catastrophes.”
Lu knocked a small wooden box holding scissors inside it.
“Don’t jinx us,” she said and then waved. “See you B and E.”
“See you B and E,” I said.
B and E. Bright and early. We’d made it up one day after the youngest woman in our group rattled off a bunch of acronyms as if the rest of us should know what they mean. We used it constantly. She didn’t think it was amusing. This of course made it that much funnier.
I pulled my loupes back down and resumed placing the beads that formed the shimmering star. Thirty minutes later I sat up, set the magnifying glasses on the table, and arched my back in a well-deserved stretch.
“Okay, you,” I said to the dress. “Time to get you on a mannequin.”
Sliding my arms beneath the gown, I lifted it carefully and carried it to the far end of the table where a mannequin with roughly Greta Garbo’s 1927 torso measurements stood in wait,
minus its arms which would be attached once I got the dress on it.
Unfortunately, the wide neckline made it hard to secure.
“You’re pretty,” I muttered, trying to keep the dress from slipping to the floor while I reached for one of the arms. “But a pain in my ass.”
I clicked an arm into place, moving the capped sleeve over the seam where the appendage attached to the shoulder, and making sure the hand was resting just right on the mannequin’s hip. Satisfied, I reached for the other arm and did the same on the other side.
“Not bad, headless Garbo,” I said, straightening the gown and smiling at the beaded star glimmering under the lights.
I grabbed my notepad and made my way around the dress, writing down problems that still needed to be addressed. Loose threads, the unraveling second tier of the skirt, and a bit of fabric that looked like it had rubbed against something and was scuffed. There was a stain on the hem in back, and one of the capped sleeves sagged, leading me to investigate and find a spot inside where the elastic was stretched out of shape.
My eyes moved along every inch of fabric, bead, and thread, my fingers scribbling notes as I took in what was easier to see with the dress hanging rather than sprawled on a tabletop. As I scrutinized the neckline in back, I noticed the tag was exposed and reached up to tuck it in. But as I pulled the material back, the tag fluttered to the floor.
With a sigh, I bent to pick it up. I could leave the fix until morning, but as I had nothing but an empty apartment waiting for me, I began the task of detaching the arms of the mannequin and sliding the dress back off and onto the table.
“Always something with you ladies,” I said, grabbing a needle and thread. “Can’t complain, I guess. Hottest date I’ve had in a while.”
But as I turned my attention to the spot the tag had fallen
from, I frowned and pulled the dress closer, peering at a small, elegant stitch no longer than the length of the tag that had covered it.
I grabbed my loupes and looked again, the stitching now magnified and leaving zero doubt that beneath the tag, in white thread and a beautiful freehand stitch, was a name—and it wasn’t Cleménte’s.
Sitting back, I removed my glasses and stared at the gorgeous dress with its beautiful wide neckline and capped sleeves, the beaded star, the tiered skirt that was so unlike Cleménte in style, and wondered aloud to the empty room—
“Who the hell is Zora Lily?”
From THE ROARING DAYS OF ZORA LILY by Noelle Salazar. Copyright © 2023 by Noelle Salazar. Published by MIRA, an imprint of HarperCollins.
About the Author
Noelle Salazar was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, where she’s been a Navy recruit, a medical assistant, an NFL cheerleader, and always a storyteller. As a novelist, she has done extensive research into the Women Airforce Service Pilots, interviewing vets and visiting the training facility—now a museum dedicated to the WASP—in Sweetwater, Texas. When she’s not writing, she can be found dodging raindrops and daydreaming of her next book. Her debut The Flight Girls, was an instant bestseller, a Forbes Hypable book of the month, and a BookBub Top Recommended book from readers. Her second novel, Angels of the Resistance: A Novel of Sisterhood and Courage in WWII was also published to wide praise including an Amazon Editors’ Fiction Pick of the Month. Noelle lives in Bothell, Washington with her family.
Author Website: https://www.noellesalazar.com/
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