Not having anything to wear is seldom a condition I suffer from. I have always been a quick and efficient packer. Handbag and carry-on, no matter how long the trip. For this trip to Paris, I had brought all easy clothes. We were to celebrate two “milestone” birthdays. Mona’s and mine. Very quiet with lots of food and drink. Therefore, I was not overjoyed when I found out that our friend had other plans. I would need an evening dress, and I needed it on the night of my arrival. We were to attend a very formal reception. No “black tie optional.” When a very formal reception is involved, the French do not fool around. It would be a four-fork occasion with more gold braid, medals, ribbons, drummers, and smart turns than Veteran’s Day at Arlington National Cemetery. I looked around his apartment. The dressiest outfit I could find was a riding outfit, and I had no skills to make anything out of the draperies.
Friend to the rescue. It was 4 P.M. It was going to be a short, hard afternoon. I put on comfortable cloth a.k.a. “going shopping battle fatigues”. Grabbed the Plastique, and off we went. Outside on the street, we squinted into the sunlight of the limestone facades and mansard roofs of the 16th Arrondissement, took a right onto Boulevard Victor Hugo, and headed for the Etoile, rushed by Lenotre, the Cartier of calories, without stopping. Major sacrifice! It occurred to me, that when in Paris, I never hear anyone say “calories,” or “cholesterol,” or even “arterial plaque.” The French do not season their food with regret. I admire their savior faire. Next to kiss and tell, I hate eat and talk.
Slipping into a familiar pattern, I studied the women walking towards us. When a man does what I am doing, it’s called being on the make. When a woman does it, it’s called testing the competition. I had consummated at least ten such encounters before we got into a cab and my friend said, “Mendes, 65 Rue Montmartre.” How does he know these things? The results of my womanizing are, as usual, inconclusive. I am no closer identifying that certain je ne sais quoi that French woman have. Many years ago, I did however gain some insight into the equivalent mystique of the French man. It had to do with the way he rolled a cigarette around between his lips with his tongue, and nipped it once or twice gently with his teeth, before he settled into smoking it. It made Marlboro Country look like Disney World.
Once in the store and in the dressing area, I tried to find a hook on the wall, which was the best way to stake a claim at Mendes, the Parisians answer to Loehmann’s, except that at Mendes, clothing by Yves St. Laurent and Lavin was routine, whereas at Loehmann’s you’re euphoric if you find a Calvin Klein.
Mendes had a punitive air about it as if wanting to shop there was a dubious activity that should be made as humiliating as possible. A reluctant shopper to begin, this did not make me any more willing to undergo the torture. However, my friend would not let me escape. He sat in the lobby with that well rehearsed look of a resigned, long-suffering male. Inside the dressing area a feeling of scarcity and urgency prevailed, a fear that there might not be enough merchandise to go around. This creates an adversarial wariness among the woman. Forget sisterhood in clothing stores.
I decided I should try to find a long black skirt and maybe a white silk blouse-something practical-and headed for the rack that was ablaze with silks and velvets. Some part of me that does not wish me well was hell-bent on making what could be a genuine spree into a joyless exercise in abnegation. It was true enough that I did not need another formal dress-I had three at home-but applying the same reasoning, what made me think I needed a black skirt and white blouse ever again? I was not a harpist with the Philharmonic.
I observed a woman looking through a rack of evening dresses . She meandered through row upon row of designer clothes. The slides of hangers on the metal racks, like beads on an abacus, and an occasional exchange of excusez-moi were the only sounds that accompanied this universal female ritual called shopping.
I sized up the woman. She was thick of waist, heavy of upper arm, and exceedingly broad of beam. She pulled out a dress by Ives St. Laurent, when I saw it I knew instantly; this was the one for me. It was gorgeous, probably too expensive, and I deserved it. None of this registered with Ms. France; she just slithered into the dress and transformed herself into a goddess. She stepped into her high heels, (this woman would never wear sneakers, she would have her legs amputated first) pirouetted and admired herself in front of the mirror, then marched out into the waiting room to search for endorsement.
As my friend caught sight of her with me following close behind, he instantly registered that this was the dress I wanted. She placed herself in front of him, exuding a musk of amour propre more French than Chanel No. 5. I, who just moments ago, had seen every bulge on her looked at her with admiration. The dress had transformed her. It was a grand seduction in haute couture.
Venus on the half-shell dewy, expectant, ask my friend “L’aimez-vous?”
“Ce n’est pas grand-chose,” he replied carelessly, letting her know he thought the dress was no great shakes.
She turned on her heels, returned to the dressing room, disappointment written all over her face, she took of the dress, slammed it back onto the rack, dressed, and left the store.
Thank you my friend
merci Monsieur St. Laurent pour transformer nous dans les déesses.