Friday, 9 January 2015

Mrs Harris Goes to Paris by Paul Gallico

published 1958




[London charwoman Mrs Harris has got herself into the Dior couture show in Paris]

Thereafter, for the next hour and a half, before the enthralled eyes of Mrs Harris, some ten models paraded one hundred and twenty specimens of the highest dressmaker’s art to be found in most degenerately civilised city in the world. They came in satins, silks, laces, wools, jerseys, cottons, brocades, velvets, twills, broadclothes, tweeds, nets, organzas, and muslins— They showed frocks, suits, coats, capes, gowns, clothes for cocktails, for the morning, the afternoon, for dinner parties , and formal and stately balls and receptions. 





They entered trimmed with fur, bugle beads, sequins, embroidery with gold and silver thread, or stiff with brocades, the colours were wonderfully gay and clashed in daring combinations; the sleeves were long, short, medium, or missing altogether. Necklines ranged from choke to plunge, hemlines wandered at the whim of the designer. Some hips were high, others low, sometimes the breasts were emphasized, sometimes neglected or wholly concealed. The theme of the show was the high waist and hidden hips. There were hints and forecasts of the sack and trapeze to come. Every known fur from Persian lamb, mink, and nutria to Russian baumarten and sable were used in trimming or in the shape of stoles or jackets.


observationsMrs Harris was recommended to me by blogfriends Daniel Milford-Cottam and Lucy Fisher, when I did a list of ‘older women winning through’ a couple of weeks ago: the mention of Dior dresses settled the matter. After all the Xmas books, and the Guardian & Twelfth Night this week, and the crime books, it's time for a good straightforward Clothes in Books book.

Mind you, at first  I was under a complete misapprehension – I thought Mrs Harris the Cockney charlady went about doing some light detecting while she cleaned houses. This is certainly not the case in either of the books I have now read: Mrs H IS a charlady, but she is just out to have adventures and enjoy life. I’d also assumed there was a Mr H in the background eating kippers for tea in his shirt-sleeves and giving out advice on the world. Again, quite wrong, she is a widow. (Am I thinking of some completely different series? One of my brilliant readers will surely know…)

In this one she has set her heart on a Dior dress, and painfully and slowly manages to save up the money for it – including winning some of it on the football pools. I am always fascinated by the finances of clothes in books, and this one is most helpful. Mrs H earns 3/- an hour (15p), and by working hard makes around £450 a year. And that is, roughly, the cost of her Dior dress plus fare to Paris. If you bring these figures up to modern levels, then the sum is just under £10,000, which sounds about right. Whatever, it’s a year’s pay for her.

Off she goes to Paris to buy it, and of course there are a few pitfalls along the way, but she makes friends and changes people’s lives for the better. It is a complete sentimental fairytale, it would be hard to think of a less realistic story, but it is also very charming. I can quite see why some people read it over and over again – and Mrs Harris is definitely one for my list of older ladies who are role models.

The only thing that surprised me in the book was what happened to the dress after she got it home – that totally confounded my expectations, and made the story a little bit tougher.

And all a perfect excuse for these wonderful photos of Dior dresses & accessories from the Dovima is Divine photostream. The top one is, exactly, Dior’s 1957 collection, photographed by Cecil Beaton.

Mrs Harris wears quite the hat on her trip:

It was of green straw and to the front of it was attached the flexible stem of a huge and preposterous rose

which resembles this one, used on the blog entry on Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat.




The other recent Ada on the blog was in Nabakov's book of that name, about as different as you could imagine from this one.

22 comments:

  1. Moira - I do like Paul Gallico's writing style, and the 'Mrs. 'Arris' series is, as you say, charming. As I read your post, I thought of what a perfect bit you chose to share. Just chock-full of the experience of being in a dressmaker's shop. Not something a lot of people get the chance to do these days. Yes, a perfect entry for your blog. And you're giving me ideas for a post on dress shops and tailors...

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    1. He's a strange writer, not really resembling anyone else... and I think a post of dress shops is a brilliant idea, please do that one....

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  2. I'm still in recovery from reading his 'Jennie' when I was about 11. Do any animals die tragically in Mrs Harris...?

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    1. I think they are safe. But my goodness he is one strange author....

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  3. I hope you bought the other Mrs Harris books? Moscow, New York, MP!
    Probably not one for me though.

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    1. I have New York, but not yet followed the rest of her progression. You can accompany her on her journeys without actually having to read the books, just by close attention to the blogposts...

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  4. Moira, Paul Gallico was a delightful storyteller. I especially enjoyed SCRUFFY which is about a monkey who annoys the occupying British forces on the Rock of Gibraltar, protecting it from Spain. Very funny and well-written. I had FLOWERS FOR MRS. HARRIS for several years but I don't remember if I read it eventually.

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    1. I think Flowers for Mrs Harris might be this one under a different title, but not sure. I read the Snow Goose a while back, and when I was young we had one about a donkey I think - he liked his animals, but see Vicki's comment above!

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    2. Yep, Flowers for Mrs Harris is an alternative title.

      "Thomasina" is also a really insane cat book but pretty amazing - I think Disney filmed it, but I dread to think how they did it.

      And "The Silent Miaow" is still hysterically funny - to this day I still think of kittens as "kottebs"

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    3. He wrote a lot didn't he? Just the cat books sound like a lot of reading. Cats in books would make a good list....

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    4. Oh yes, Scruffy is lovely! He was a very sentimental writer, which odd, as I seem to recall he started as a sports writer. The books seem to veer between charming and terribly sad. Snow Goose, yes, and also Love Let Me Not Hunger.

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    5. Never even heard of Hunger - so prolific. I wonder if he was cynical at all - 'this stuff sells' - because he seems to have had quite a hard exterior, but perhaps a soft centre too....

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  5. I love the photo at the top. It really was a different world. There was a marvellous exhibition of clothes of that era in Manchester recently.

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    1. Oh how nice! I do love a clothes exhibiton. I saw some Cecil Beaton photos on show recently, though they were people rather than clothes - but he was very talented, and his photos for Vogue were always wonderful.

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  6. Sounds interesting. And such a treasure trove of images. I especially love the last one, but all of them are good.

    I was thinking today about the movie Cover Girl (Gene Kelly, Rita Hayworth). Have you seen that? Full of clothing, although that is not the point of it.

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    1. I saw Cover Girl years ago, I would love to see it again. Rita Hayworth so beautiful.

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    2. She is lovely, and she tap dances. She did two movies with Fred Astaire with wonderful tap dancing. Glen especially likes The Strawberry Blonde.

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    3. You Were Never Lovelier! She is amazing in that, and when she dances The Shorty George with Fred, I don't move or breathe, practically, the whole time.

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    4. Yes, one of my favorite tap dancing scenes ever.

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  7. You may be thinking of Mrs. Pollifax, who was prone to detecting.

    I enjoyed your hat pic. There was a hat described in Georgette Heyer's Bath Tangle, that included 5 ostrich plumes, a bunch of grapes, 2 bunches of cherries, 3 rosettes and 2 roses. Do have any more extravagant hat references or pictures?

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    1. Thanks, Anne, you may be right.
      I am always partial to a good hat on the blog! I discovered a milliner called Lilly Daiche, and have used her hats to illustrate a number of entries. If you go to this one: http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/hardscape-by-justin-scott.html
      you can click on the labels beneath the post for 'Lilly Dache' and 'hat' and it will bring up a whole parade of entries and headgear!

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    2. That should be Lilly DACHE in both cases - I mis-spelled one and edit isn't working.

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