The Dressmaker's Gift

The Dressmaker's Gift

Fiona Valpy


From a distance, the midnight blue dress looks as though it has been cut from one single piece of silk. Its graceful lines drape and flow, skimming the form of the mannequin on which it is displayed.

But if you look more closely, you will see that this is an illusion. The dress has been pieced together from scraps and off-cuts, sewn edge to edge so cleverly that they have been transformed into something else.

The years that have passed have aged the gown, making it so fragile that it must be protected if it is to tell its story in the years that are to come, and so the museum staff have placed it in a glass cabinet for the exhibition. On one side, the display case is made of magnifying glass to enable the viewer to study the detail of the seamstress’s handiwork. Each fragment of material has been hand-sewn with invisible stitches, as tiny and regular as any modern-day machine could manage. The people who come to see it will marvel at its complexity, and at the time and patience it must have taken to create it.

There is a history displayed in this glass case. It’s a part of all our shared histories, and it’s a part of my own personal history.

The museum director comes in to check that all is in order for the opening. He nods his approval and the rest of the team head off for drinks at the bar round the corner to celebrate.

But I hang back and, just before I finally close the cabinet, I run my fingertips over the delicate silver beads that draw the eye to the neckline of the dress. They are another clever distraction from the patchwork pieces, a scattering of stars against a midnight sky. I can imagine how they would have caught the light and how the eye of the beholder would then have been drawn upwards, to the sweep of the neck, the line of the cheekbones, the eyes of the wearer of this gown; eyes which would have held that same light in their depths.

I shut the display cabinet and I know that everything is ready. Tomorrow, the gallery doors will open and people will come here to look at the dress whose image is displayed on the posters on the walls of the Métro.

And from a distance they will think it’s been cut from one single piece of silk. It’s only when they look more closely that they will see the truth.


A gust of hot, stale air, belched from the tangle of tunnels below ground, buffets my legs and snatches at my hair as I wrestle my heavy suitcase up the steps of the Métro and emerge into the light of the Paris afternoon. The pavement is busy with tourists, who amble and dawdle, consulting maps and phones as they work out which direction to go next. With quicker, more purposeful steps, smartly dressed locals who have recently returned to reclaim their city, having spent the month of August by the sea, weave their way in and out of the crowds.

The river of traffic streams by – a continual blur of colour and noise – and for a moment I feel dizzy, light-headed with the mixture of all that movement and the nervous excitement of being in the city that will be my home for the next twelve months. I may look like a tourist right now, but soon, I hope I might be mistaken for a native Parisienne.

To give myself a moment to regain my composure, I pull my case to the railings alongside the entrance to Saint-Germain-des-Prés station and consult the email on my phone, rechecking the details. Not that I need to – I know the words off by heart . . .

Dear Ms Shaw,

Further to my phone call, I am pleased to confirm that your application for a one-year internship at the Agence Guillemet has been successful. Congratulations!

As discussed, whilst we are only able to offer the minimum wage for the position of intern, we are pleased to be able to offer you accommodation in an apartment above the office.

Once you have finalised your travel arrangements, please confirm the date and time of your arrival. I look forward to welcoming you to the company.

Yours sincerely,

Florence Guillemet


Agence Guillemet, Relations Publiques

12 Rue Cardinale, Paris 75000.

I still can’t quite believe that I managed to talk Florence into taking me on. She runs a PR agency specialising in the fashion sector, focusing on a client list of smaller companies and start-ups who can’t afford their own in-house communications personnel. She doesn’t usually take on interns but my letter and CV were persuasive enough to make her call me at last (after I’d resent them twice, that is, and she’d realised I wasn’t going to leave her alone until I’d had an answer). The fact that I was prepared to do the job for a whole year on minimal pay, coupled with my fluency in French, led to a more formal Skype interview. And a glowing reference from my university tutor, emphasising my interest in the fashion industry and my commitment to hard work, finally convinced her to take me on.

I’d been prepared to look for a place to rent in one of the less salubrious suburbs of the city, eking out the small inheritance which had been left in trust for me in my mother’s will. So the offer of a room above the office was a fantastic bonus as far as I was concerned. I’d be living in the very building that had led me to find the Agence Guillemet in the first place.

I don’t usually believe in fate, but it felt as if a force was at work, drawing me to Paris. Leading me to the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Bringing me here.

To the building in the photograph.

I’d found the photo in a cardboard box of my mother’s things which had been pushed to the back of the highest shelf of the wardrobe in my bedroom, presumably by my father. Perhaps he’d wanted to hide it away up there so that I’d only find it when I’d grown up enough to be ready to see its contents, once the passing years had softened the edges of my grief so that they could no longer inflict such pain. Or perhaps it was guilt that made him push the taped-up box out of sight and out of reach, so that he and his new wife wouldn’t have to see this pathetically meagre reminder of the part they’d played in the unbearable sadness which finally led my mother to take her own life.

I’d discovered it one damp day when I was in my teens, home from boarding school for the Easter holidays. Despite the trouble they’d gone to – making sure I had my own room, letting me choose the colour for the walls and allowing me to arrange the books, ornaments and posters I’d brought with me however I liked – my father and stepmother’s house never really felt like ‘home’ at all. It was always their house, never mine. It was the place where I had to come and live when my own home had suddenly ceased to exist.

I’d been bored that wet April day. My two younger stepsisters were bored too, which meant they were niggling at one another, and the niggling had inevitably escalated into name-calling, a full-blown argument and then a good deal of loud screeching and door-slamming.

I retreated to my room and plugged my earbuds into my ears, using my music to block out the noise. Sitting cross-legged on my bed, I began to turn the pages of the latest copy of Vogue. At my request, my stepmother had given me a subscription for my Christmas present. I always savoured the moment when I opened the latest edition of the magazine, poring over each of the glossy pages, expensively scented with samples of the latest perfumes and lotions, a portal into the glamorous world of high fashion. That day, there was a picture of a model in a primrose-yellow T-shirt heading up a feature entitled ‘Early Summer Pastels’. It reminded me that I had one quite like it somewhere in my wardrobe among the summer clothes that I’d washed and folded carefully last autumn, swapping them over on the top shelf for the warmer tops and jumpers that were stashed there.

I laid the magazine aside and dragged the chair from my desk over to the wardrobe. As I reached for the pile of summery tops, my fingertips brushed against the age-softened cardboard of the box pushed to the back of the shelf.

I’d never paid any attention to it before that day – probably because I hadn’t been tall enough to see the writing – but now, standing on tiptoes, I pulled the box towards me and saw my mother’s name written in thick black marker pen on the parcel tape that sealed the top shut.

All thoughts of early summer pastels forgotten for the moment, I lifted the box down. Alongside her name – Felicity – was scrawled ‘papers/photos etc. for Harriet’ in my father’s handwriting.

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