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