What do you wear at a book launch?

Some guests asked me what they should wear for my book launch. “Can I come as a rocket man?” said one friend, raising make-believe Elton spectacles. “Something with sequins but fireproof?”

“I don’t think so.” I frowned. I was launching a book not firing a man into space.

Guests were welcome to orbit the plush interior of the bookshop in which the event was being held, though, weightlessly moving past the stellar creations on the shelves, then refuelling on chips, dips and wine from the central table. The aim was to introduce the book to readers, not propel anyone off the face of Earth.

Launch is a word that bursts in different directions. The flight of a rocket upwards; the slip of a ship into water. This ceremony of uplifting carries over to all things newly created: music albums, cars, Apple phones and, of course, books.

Unlike ceremonies for ships, however, there is no clear dress code for book launches. People don’t know what to wear. They dither between semi-formal and smart-casual, forgetting that once everyone is packed into the room set aside for the launch (the cosier the venue, the bigger the crowd will appear) no one will have range to focus. In winter many people won’t remove their coats either. They’ll stand padded out, one hand shoved deep into a pocket – the men anyway – and a wine glass clutched to their chest. All zips zipped, all buttons buttoned, no shoes removed. The people in shirts will be the staff, publishers and author. Theoretically it is possible to deliver a launch speech shrouded in five layers of wool, but unless you’re a sheep it’s not a good look.

Ten minutes short of blast-off – scheduled for 6pm – the shop stood empty. The gleaming wooden floor gleamed, the book lined walls exuded melodrama and the twenty or so copies of my book in the front window stood motionless, awaiting their readers.

Perhaps no one was coming? Everyone still at home, standing in front of their wardrobes, trying to decide what to wear? Fluffy baby blue fleeces or wide lapelled green trench coats? Velveteen black tuxedos or salmon red sweatshirts?

Despite the venue being the perfect size – slim enough to convert a few punters into a multitude – inevitably there would be sartorial comparisons with the covers of the displayed books. The livid tangerine of How to Fake Being Tidy was bound to clash with the hide tan of anyone wearing jodhpurs. The blues, reds, pinks and yellows of Come Hither would contrast with the dullness of men’s jackets, especially those men with grey hair. It’s not cool to outsmart book covers, unless you’re the designer of the book being launched, in which case you can choose colours that match.

At 6pm, James and Margaret smiled in. Then Muditha who’d already sent his apologies, followed by Tommy from Toastmasters and a quill of writers from the Underground Bookstore. And people from Kate’s school, friends from the quiz team and other people I hadn’t seen in ages. So good to have everyone’s support. The chapel of the shop filled up, some guests wandering up and down, worshipping books, while others discovered old acquaintances and formed circles of devout conversation. 

At 6.23pm the speeches ignited in a fanfare of trumpets and bright blue smoke. My book was sprung into the world and in a whirl of words, of unbelievable accolades (thank you everybody!) it soared heavenward. One thing was for sure, the book was well dressed. It wore an exquisite linen gown, crowned with blues and greens of a beautiful butterfly.

All speeches went smoothly, not a single hiccup or spilled pinprick of fairytale blood. The microphone stand took a little getting used to, rising like a black proboscis from the beating heart of the stage. Lips no further than two inches from its foil if you wanted your words to be heard. It sucked them in and belched them out, deep, wide and resounding. The microphone stand was mobile too, inviting flamboyance, a chance for speakers to twirl it around like Rod Stewart or Freddie Mercury. Fortunately no one did, nor had any guests turned up as astronauts.

This was a book launch after all, not a mission to Mars.

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