Book ‘The Dressmaker’s Gift’ by Fiona Valpy

The Dressmaker's Gift' by Fiona Valpy
Book 'The Dressmaker's Gift' by Fiona Valpy
I’ve read many books about the courage displayed during World War Two, but nothing has quite captivated my attention like The Dressmaker’s Gift. If you’re looking for an immersive historical drama focusing on the selfless actions women took, doing whatever they could do to help in the war effort, look no further. Set in a war-torn France continually savaged by Nazi soldiers, The Dressmaker’s Gift follows the lives of three young women who work for a Parisian couturier, residing in the attic bedrooms above the shop on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, who lead a parallel existence: designing clothes for wealthy German women...
Title: The Dressmaker's Gift by Fiona Valpy
File Size: 1557 KB
Print Length: 286 pages
Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1542005132
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing (October 1, 2019)
Publication Date: October 1, 2019
Language: English

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Dedicated to the memory of the female Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents, who worked with the French Resistance movement in World War Two and lost their lives in the concentration camps of Natzweiler-Struthof, Dachau and Ravensbriick:

Mande Beekman, Denise Bloch, Andree Borrell, Madeleine Damerment, Noor Inayat Khan, Cecily Lefort, Vera Leigh, Sonia Olchanezky, Eliane Plewman, Lilian Rolfe, Diana Rowden, Yvonne Rudelatt and Violette Szabo.

And their sisters-in-arms whose names were not recorded and whose fate remains unknown to this day.


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 Metro.

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 Metro 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-Pres 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.

I ran my fingers over the words and my eyes filled with tears at the sight of her name, and mine, written there. The wide brown tape had lost its stickiness over the years and it lifted away from the cardboard as I touched it, crackling softly. I brushed away my tears with my sleeve and opened the box.

The pile of papers within looked as though they’d been hastily — and somewhat randomly — thrown in in no particular order, the roughly sorted remnants of my mother’s life that had made it on to the ‘keep for Harriet’ pile landing in a brown box instead of a black bin bag.

I spread them out across my bedroom floor, sorting official documents — her out-of-date driving licence and passport — from copies of my old school reports and the handmade birthday cards that I’d given her over the years. I cried again at the sight of the clumsy, childish drawings of the two of us hand in hand, alone together. But I smiled through my tears as I realised that even at that early age I’d added fashionable touches in the form of large buttons down the front of our dresses and brightly coloured handbags to match. The handwriting inside the cards ranged from laborious nursery school printing to a rounded primary school script, heartfelt messages of love that she’d treasured enough to hold on to for safekeeping. Maybe I imagined it but it seemed to me that, even after all these years, those pictures were scented — very faintly — with the perfume that she’d always worn. The sweetly floral smell brought back a vivid memory of the black bottle with a silver top sitting on her dressing table, a French perfume called Arpege.

And yet, my pictures and messages hadn’t been enough. They hadn’t been able to pull her out of the quicksand of loneliness and sorrow that had eventually overwhelmed her, dragging her down so deep that the only escape she could find was death. Her name was one of the ultimate ironies in a life that had been anything but felicitous. The only time she had seemed really happy was when she played her piano, losing herself in the music she made as her hands floated effortlessly across the keys. My throat closed around a lump of grief as solid as a stone as I sorted the cards into a careful pile: the evidence that my mother had loved me so much, but that love, ultimately, hadn’t been able to save her.

When, at last, I was able to set the other papers aside and dry my eyes, I turned my attention to a bundle of photographs at the bottom of the box.

At the top of the pile there was one which made me catch my breath. It was a picture of her cradling me in her arms, my baby hair a halo of thistledown, catching the sunlight which streamed in from the window alongside us. The light, which made her look like a Renaissance Madonna, bathed my baby features in gold as well and it was as if I was illuminated by the love that shone from her eyes as she gazed at me. On her wrist, clearly visible, was the gold charm bracelet that I now wear. My father gave it to me on my sixteenth birthday, explaining that it had belonged to my mother and to her mother before her. I’ve worn it every day since. In the photograph, I could make out some of the charms that hang round my own wrist today — the tiny Eiffel Tower, the bobbin of thread and the thimble.

My father must have taken the picture, I realised, once upon a time when it was just the three of us and we were enough. When we were everything.

I set the print aside. I’d find a frame for it and take it back to school with me so that it could sit on the windowsill by my bed and I could see it each day without having to worry about it upsetting my father or irritating my stepmother, this reminder of a Before which they would prefer to forget. As if my presence in their house wasn’t already enough.

There were several school photos in the box too: pictures of me in my white blouse and navy jumper, sitting stiffly in front of the photographer’s sky blue backcloth, smiling my cautious smile. She’d kept them all, one year after the next, my strawberry blonde hair pulled back from my face by a dark blue hairband in one, and drawn into a neat ponytail in another, but my expression of wary watchfulness never changing.

I picked the last of these school photos from the very bottom of the box. As I opened the cream card cover, another photo fell into my lap. It was an old black and white print, curling and yellowed with age. Probably long forgotten, it must have got stuck beneath the mount by mistake.

Something about the picture — the smiles of the three girls it depicted perhaps, or the elegantly cut lines of the suits they wore — caught my attention. There was an air of continental chic about them. As I looked more closely, I realised that I was right. They were standing in front of a shop window above which was painted the number of the building — 12 —and the words Delavigne, Couturier. When I carried the photo to the window to examine it in the better light, I could make out the words on the enamelled sign affixed to the building, unmistakeably French, which read Rue Cardinale — 6e arrondissement.

I recognised the girl on the left. With her delicate features, fair hair and gentle smile she bore more than a passing resemblance to my mother. I was sure this must be my grandmother, Claire. I vaguely remembered her image from looking through old family albums (where were those albums now?) and my mother telling me that her mother had been born in France. She never said much more about her though, and it only now struck me as strange that she had changed the subject whenever I asked questions about this French grandmother.

Sure enough, when I turned the picture over, written on the back in a looping hand were three names: Claire, Vivienne, Mireille, and the words Paris, Mai 1941.

I knew I was clutching at straws, but somehow that old photograph — a fragment of my mother’s family history — became an important part of my heritage. There was so little left of that side of my family that this tenuous link to one of my ancestors took on huge significance for me. It had sat in a frame, alongside the mother-and-baby photo, and it then kept me company through the remainder of my school days and on to university. And even though I’d already begun to take a keen interest in the fashion business before I’d discovered the forgotten photo in the cardboard box, the picture of those three elegant young women standing on that street corner more than forty years ago certainly played its part in piquing my fascination. Maybe the love of fashion was already in my blood, but the photograph helped to shape my dreams. It had seemed like fate when I tracked down the address — 12 Rue Cardinale — on a school trip to Paris and found myself standing in front of a plate glass window bearing the name Agence Guillemet, Relations Publiques (specialiste Mode). In that moment, my future was decided. That sign opened up a whole career path that I’d never imagined existed, and drove me on to apply for an internship in fashion PR once I’d finished my degree in Business Studies with French.

I’d hesitated before contacting the agency, lacking the confidence to make an approach out of the blue, and receiving no encouragement from my father. If anything, Dad had always tried to discourage my interest in fashion, seeming to disapprove of my choice of career. But, as if egging me on, my grandmother Claire and her two friends had smiled at me from the black and white photo propped on the desk beside my laptop, as if to say, ‘At last! What are you waiting for? Come and find us!’

And so here I am, in Paris on a September afternoon, straightening my jacket and smoothing my hair into place before I wheel my suitcase along the busy pavement and press the buzzer on the door of the office. The plate glass windows, half-covered by blinds bearing the Agence Guillemet logo that have been pulled down to keep the glare of the afternoon sun at bay, reflect my anxiety back at me and I realise my heart is beating fast.

With a click, the door unlocks itself and I push it open, stepping into a softly lit reception area.

French grey walls are hung with framed copies of magazine covers — Vogue, Paris Match, Elle — and fashion shots. Even at first glance, I can tell they bear the trademark styles of photographers like Mario Testino, Patrick Demarchelier and Annie Leibovitz. A pair of minimalist sofas, upholstered in a highly impractical ivory linen, face one another across a low table upon which sits a selection of the latest fashion publications in a variety of languages. For a moment, I imagine sinking down on to one of them and kicking off the shoes that are pinching my travel-swollen feet.

Instead, I step forward to shake the hand of the receptionist who has come around from behind her desk to greet me. The first thing I notice about her is the mass of dark curls which frame her face and tumble over her shoulders. And the second thing is her effortlessly chic style. The little black dress she wears hugs the curves of her figure and the flat ballerina pumps on her feet add very little to her diminutive height. I immediately feel awkwardly tall and ungainly in my high heels, and stuffily formal in my tailored suit and tight-fitting white blouse, now creased from my journey and the heat.

Thankfully, though, the third thing I notice is her friendly smile, which lights up her dark eyes as she welcomes me, saying, ‘Hello, you must be Harriet Shaw. I’m Simone Thibault. Very pleased to meet you. I’ve been looking forward to having the company — we’re going to be flatmates, sharing the apartment upstairs.’ She nods toward the ornate cornicing on the ceiling above our heads as she says this, making her curls dance. I warm to her immediately and am secretly relieved that she isn’t one of the snooty, skinny French fashionistas I’d imagined my colleagues might be.

Simone stashes my suitcase behind her desk and then ushers me through a door at the back of the reception area. I am immediately aware of the discreet chirping of telephones and the low murmur of voices in the busy PR office. One of the half-dozen or so employees — the account managers and their assistants — stands up to shake my hand, but the others in the room are completely absorbed in their work and only have time to nod briefly as we walk past. Simone pauses before a panelled door at the far end of the room and knocks. After a moment, a voice calls, “Entrez!” and I find myself standing in front of a wide mahogany desk, behind which sits Florence Guillemet, the director of the agency.

She raises her eyes from her computer screen and removes the dark-rimmed glasses she’s been wearing. She is immaculately dressed in the most elegant trouser suit I have ever seen. Chanel, maybe? Or Yves Saint Laurent? Her streaked blonde hair is cut in a way that shows off the height of her cheekbones whilst flattering a jawline that is just starting to show the first signs of softening with age. Her eyes are a warm amber-brown and they seem to see right through me.

‘Harriet?’ she asks.

I nod, struck dumb momentarily as the magnitude of what I’ve done hits me. A year? In this professional, A-list public relations agency? In the fashion capital of the world? What am I doing here?

And how long will it take them to discover how ill-equipped I am — fresh out of university — to contribute anything of any value to the work they do here?

And then she smiles. ‘You remind me of myself, many years ago when I started out in the industry. You have demonstrated both courage and determination in getting yourself here. Although, maybe it feels a bit overwhelming just at this moment?’

I nod again, still unable to find the words…

‘Well, that is only natural. You’ve had a long journey and you must be tired. For today, Simone will show you up to the apartment and leave you to settle in. You have the weekend to find your feet. Work starts on Monday. It will be good to have an extra pair of hands. We’re so busy with preparations for Fashion Week.’

The anxiety that I’m feeling, which the mention of Paris Fashion Week — one of the most important events in the couture calendar — only serves to deepen, must show in my expression, because she adds, ‘Don’t worry. You’re going to do just fine.’

I manage to find my voice again and blurt out, ‘Merci, Madame Guillemet.’ But then the phone on her desk rings and she dismisses us with another smile and a wave of her hand as she turns to answer it.

Simone helps me lug my suitcase up five flights of steep and narrow stairs. The first floor, she explains, is used as a photographic studio, rented out on a freelance basis. We poke our heads around the door to take a look. It’s one vast room with clean white walls, empty save for a pair of folding screens in one corner. With its tall windows and high ceiling it’s the perfect space for fashion shoots.

The next three floors are sublet as offices. The brass nameplates on their doors announce that the rooms are occupied by an accounting firm and a photographer. ‘Florence needs to make the building pay its way,’ Simone says. ‘And there are always people looking to rent a little office space in Saint-Germain. It’s a condition of the lease, though, that the top floor rooms cannot be rented out, so that they can be a perk of the job. Luckily for you and me!’

The top floor of the building, tucked in under the eaves, consists of a series of small rooms, a couple of which are used as storage, filled with filing cabinets, boxes of old office materials, defunct computers and piles of magazines. Simone shows me the cramped galley kitchen where there’s just enough space for a fridge, cooker and sink, and the living room, which has a round, bistro-style table with two chairs in one corner and a small sofa pushed against the far wall. Its compact size is more than compensated for by the sloping roof light set into the low ceiling which allows sunshine to pour in. If I stand on tiptoes and crane my neck a little, I can see the Parisian skyline and glimpse the roof of the church from which the Boulevard Saint-Germain takes its name.

‘And this is your room,’ Simone says, pushing open another door. It’s tiny — there’s just enough space for a single iron bedstead, a chest of drawers and a utilitarian, free-standing clothes rail which looks like it may have been salvaged from a warehouse at some point in the distant past.

If I stoop beneath the sloping ceiling, from the small square of the dormer window I can see an ocean of slate rooftops, across which a flotilla of chimney pots and television aerials are scattered, under a clear blue September sky.

I turn to smile at Simone.

She shrugs apologetically. ‘It’s small, but…’

‘It’s perfect,’ I say. And I mean it. Because this tiny room is mine. My own space, for the next twelve months. And somehow, even though I’ve never seen it before in my life, I have a sense of belonging here: it feels like home.

An old, long-forgotten photograph, discovered by accident in a box of fading memories, is my only tenuous link to this place. But then I don’t really have any other strong connections in life and so this most fragile of threads, as fine as a strand of age-worn silk, has become the only lifeline I know, binding me to this tiny bedroom in an unknown building in a foreign city. It has drawn me here and I feel a strong compulsion to see where it takes me, following it back through the years, back through the generations, to its source.

‘Well, I’d better get back to work.’ Simone glances at her watch. ‘Another hour to go before the weekend can officially begin. I’ll leave you to unpack. See you later.’ She leaves, closing the door of the apartment behind her, and I hear her footsteps fade away down the stairs.

I open my suitcase and dig beneath the layers of carefully folded clothes until my fingertips connect with the hard edges of the frame, wrapped for safe-keeping in the folds of a woollen jumper.

The eyes of the three young women in the photograph seem to be fixed upon mine as I search their faces for the thousandth time for clues about their lives. As I set the picture on top of the chest of drawers beside my narrow bed, I am more conscious than ever of how rootless I am and of how vital it is for me to find out more about them.

I’m not just searching for who they are. I’m trying to find out who I am, too.