The Dressmaker's Gift

Above ground, in the crowds that milled around the bars and restaurants of Les Halles, Claire stood stock still for a moment. Was that really Mireille she had just seen, entwined in that man’s arms as the stairway to the Métro swallowed them up? So intent on her secret lover that she hadn’t even noticed when Claire called to her as they’d lurched past just a few feet in front of her. So that was her game, was it? Some friend, who couldn’t even be bothered to confide in her. Let alone include her in their outings and maybe ask him to introduce her to a friend of his . . . Well, you certainly learn who your real friends are, she thought.

And with that she turned away and followed the two other girls into the bar, where soldiers in grey uniforms lounged at small tables, on the lookout for pretty French girls to spend their money on and help them forget how far away from home they were on Christmas Eve.


One of the things on the top of my to-do list since my arrival in Paris has been to visit the Palais Galliera, the city’s very own museum dedicated to fashion. I’ve seen pictures of it, but nothing has prepared me for the jaw-dropping beauty of the place. It’s a gem of a palace, a perfect wedding-cake building conjuring Italian style with its white stone columns and balustrades. I enter through the ornately carved gatehouse leading off a leafy street in one of Paris’s most elegant districts, and feel as if I’ve stepped out of the city and into a rural idyll. Trees fringe the neatly manicured parkland and, just beyond their autumnal branches, the Eiffel Tower points towards the blue of the sky. Statues dot the grounds, and the verdigris figure of a girl, the centrepiece of a fountain in front of the palace, is surrounded by ribbon-like beds of flowers, carefully planted in a mosaic of yellow and gold.

My heart beats with anticipation as I climb the broad white steps to the colonnaded entrance.

To my even greater delight, they are running an exhibition of styles from the Fifties. So I feel as if I’ve been transported back so close to the war years that I can almost reach out and touch the work of Claire and Mireille, reminding myself that the dresses, suits and coats they sewed were the immediate precursors to the garments I’m looking at now. I wander through the main gallery, drinking in the elegance of that golden age of haute couture. Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’ dominates – the nipped-in waists and flowing skirts that were fashion’s response to the restrictions of the war years – but as well there are classic Chanel suits and stunning, deceptively simple-looking, Balenciaga gowns encrusted with rock crystal embroidery. These are pieces that represent both the start and end of an era – the last, short-lived blooming of French couture when the war ended, which was rapidly overtaken by the fashion houses’ new trend for ‘ready-to-wear’ fashion.

I linger in the museum’s galleries, entranced by the displays. As well as the exhibition of Fifties couture, there are rooms filled with fashion history, from garments worn by Marie Antoinette and the Empress Josephine, to the black gown which Audrey Hepburn wore in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It is all, quite simply, breathtaking.

When, at last, I emerge into the crisp autumnal day, I decide to walk back along the river rather than ducking underground into the Métro. The leaves are turning to gold along the riverside quais and the waters of the Seine glint with the same golden light until they are churned to pewter, in a kind of reverse alchemy, by the passing tourist boats.

As I walk, transported back in time by the sight of those beautiful clothes in the Palais Galliera, I mull over what I’ve learned so far about my grandmother’s life during the war here in Paris.

My feelings are mixed. Now that I know a little more, I’m impatient to know everything else that happened. But, at the same time, from what Simone’s told me, I’m wondering increasingly whether I would have liked my grandmother Claire if I’d met her. Compared with Mireille, she seems to have been a bit weak and overly preoccupied with the superficial world of Parisian glamour.

She was young, of course, but then so was Mireille so that’s really no excuse. She’d clearly had a hard childhood, growing up motherless and in poverty in a household full of men where she was expected to be the housekeeper from an early age.

So I can understand her longing for a life of luxury and elegance. I suppose that, in that way, she and I are not so different.

And then it occurs to me that maybe it’s been passed down to me in the genes, this fascination with the world of fashion. Is that something I have inherited from Claire? Or is it simply a longing to escape from the reality of our situations in life into a world of fantasy and glamour? Either way, that thought brings with it a very strange mixture of emotions. Because I always thought I was forging my own path, that my ‘passion for fashion’ as my father sometimes disparagingly referred to it, was mine and mine alone. In fact, it became an important part of my identity, a part of my individuality that I clung to in a household where I felt I was scarcely noticed. But to realise, now, that perhaps it’s not unique to me, that maybe it’s one of those threads which run back through generations, makes me feel strangely unsettled.

It’s a realisation that leads me, inevitably, to two further streams of thought and they tangle and knot themselves in the pit of my stomach. The first is reassuring, a sense of connection and continuity, a feeling that I am linked to my forebears in unknown ways; and the second is unsettling, a sense that I am trapped in a family history that I’m not sure I want to be a part of. Is this link to my ancestors a good thing or a bad thing? Who really were these people? And what other legacies have I inherited from them? From my grandmother? From my mother?

My mother. Was that same legacy something that blighted her life with the depression that ultimately destroyed her? Was there some instability built into the foundations of her being that made her crumble and collapse? In my memories, she always had a fragility about her. I remember how she would play me tunes on her beloved piano, amusing me for hours on end with nursery rhymes and teaching me the words of carols at Christmas time; those were happy times, lit by the daylight which streamed in through the French doors leading to the garden. But then sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night and hear the strains of something else, the sad notes of a nocturne or the haunting melody of a sonata in a minor key, as she played in the darkness to while away the hours, getting herself through another lonely night.

Thinking of the home where she and I lived, an image flits, unbidden, into my mind of flashing blue lights and hands holding me back as I try to run forward through a door that is slightly ajar. In my mind, I slam that door shut, not wanting to go there again. I’m too frightened. Not yet ready. I need the distraction of focusing on finding out Claire’s story first, before I can begin to revisit the more immediate past . . .

Until now, my family’s history has been an enigma, a tattered tapestry filled with holes. My mother always seemed reluctant to talk about it. Was there some sense of shame that stopped her from doing so?

Suddenly, it seems vital that I find out. Simone’s retelling of her grandmother’s recollections is helping me slowly piece some of my own story together. But lately I’ve been getting the impression that she’s a little reticent to continue the story – often too busy, or out with other friends. Maybe I’m imagining it, but I sense that there’s been a slight coolness between her and me since the evening in the bar when I spent those hours chatting with Thierry. I try to shrug it off – after all, she introduced him as just one of a group of her friends and hadn’t said that there was any particular closeness between the two of them. I tell myself that she probably doesn’t want to feel obliged to invite me along every time she goes out, and of course we are always under pressure in the office. And yet it niggles away at me, the distance that seems to have grown between us and the slight feeling of awkwardness when we are in the apartment together.

But I want to hear more of the story which is mine as well as hers. I feel the need to know more about who my mother and my grandmother really were. What history has been passed through them to me? I need to know who I really am, too.

There’s that programme on TV isn’t there, which I never really paid much attention to, but which my stepmother used to watch sometimes, about people finding out about their ancestors. I vaguely recall that they looked up the census and marriage records and death certificates online to trace the lines of family through the generations.

Back in the apartment, after a moment’s hesitation, I open my laptop and I begin my own search . . .

And I find it’s easy enough. I just have to register with the General Records Office website, fill in the details of the person I am looking for and they will send me the certificates in a couple of weeks’ time. I hesitate for a few moments, trying to recall my mother’s maiden name, and then I type ‘Claire Redman’ into the search form and ‘Meynardier’ into the field marked ‘Previous Name’. Then I check the boxes marked ‘Marriage Certificate’ and ‘Death Certificate’, before pressing ‘Submit Request’.

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