The Dress Thief laid bare
Alix Gower’s story is told in The Dress Thief and in a flight of imaginative fancy, I am flying back in time to interview her. Hoping for a relaxed chat over a coffee, I get a sharp lesson in women’s rights, the difference between style and chic, and the advantage of following nuns across the road.
It is early summer, 1939. The international scene is troubled. Only those with heads stuck in the sand believe there will not be war between Germany and France and her allies. But sitting at a café table in Place du Tertre, Montmartre, watching the jobbing artists putting on their daily show for the tourists, I find it hard to believe that in one year’s time, this place will be occupied by German soldiers. Does Alix have any inkling, I wonder?
Natalie Meg Evans (NME): Alix, I know you’ve never been too interested in politics—
Alix Gower (AG): If you’ve come to talk politics, it will be a one-sided conversation. I won’t talk about religion either – nor gardening. They are all a mystery to me.
NME: Even you must have an opinion on the situation in Europe.
AG: I leave opinions to others. Do the Popular Front or Mr Hitler care what I think? This city is my world and I don’t need be anywhere else because the world comes to Paris. Look around you – listen. How many languages can you hear?
NME: Um . . French, obviously. The people at the next table are Russian. Oh, and English. Lots of English, now I’m listening.
AG: Not English, American. Those men over there are speaking American. You should know that.
NME: Ah, have I just stumbled upon the famous Alix Gower mania for detail?
AG: Detail is important. In my job –
NME: You mean fashion designing and dress-making?
AG: I mean haute-couture. Attention to detail is what differentiates us from the corner dressmaker or the mass-manufacturer. Detail shows the hand of God at work.
NME: That’s profound.
AG: (Laughing) I am quoting the Comte de Charembourg, a friend I have known all my life. You should talk politics to him. He reads newspapers and is always telling me that I should hone my mind. For me, reading a newspaper is like interrupting a conversation between dull, old men. If newspapers were meant for women, they would not be three feet across when you open them. I have never met a woman who wants to be seen in public as a hat and a pair of clenched knuckles.
NME: You’re not a feminist, then, Alix?
AG: What is that?
NME: A feminist advocates the rights of women, and believes in female equality –
AG: I don’t believe in female equality. Not in the least. Women are already superior in every regard, except when it comes to choosing wine and driving in Paris. Women are embarrassed to choose wine because of course, the waiter always gives them a menu without prices. And you cannot drive well in Paris unless you are prepared to kill.
NME: Er, that’s a bit extreme.
AG: Have you crossed many streets and boulevards in your visit here?
NME: I agree, it’s not easy. It’s the only city I know where pedestrians have to adjust their speed to take account of the cars.
AG: You must always follow a nun across the road. Nobody in Paris will run over a nun.
NME: I’ll bear that in mind. So, back to feminism. In France, women still do not have the vote.
NME: Alix, don’t you want to vote?
AG: I am not a French citizen and anyway, I’d rather dress politicians’ mistresses than vote for their lovers. Until women have somebody worth voting for, why should they care?
NME: So who would you like to see standing for government, Alix?
AG: My grandmother, Mémé. She has lived through two German invasions, first in Alsace in 1871, then in 1914. She says that people who have endured only one war persuade themselves that it cannot happen again. When you’ve lived through two . . . no, let’s change the subject. Ask me something amusing. Shall we have more coffee?
NME: I was thinking of a glass of wine. The sun’s almost over the yard-arm.
AG: (laughing) This is Paris. Who cares where the sun is, or the yard-arm?
NME: Wine it is, then. Garçon, over here, please . . . Alix, I can’t remember, do you prefer red or white?
AG: That is like asking if I prefer flowers or fresh air. Today, I shall have white. Let’s see if they have an Alsace Riesling. The Comte de Charembourg, who was born in Alsace, says we have a duty to drink the wines of that region and I am happy to oblige him. Ask me another question, but nothing more about the rights of women, or the wrongs of women, or about war. Ask me something I can answer! Something that makes me look clever, please.
NME: Let me ask you about clothes, then. Have you always wanted to work in fashion?
AG: I don’t know anything about fashion.
NME: You’re being awkward, Alix. You wanted to work in the fashion world all your life, designing, wearing and making beautiful clothes. You made enough fuss about it, always going on about hating your dull job in the telephone exchange. You’d have sold your right arm to break into fashion.
AG: I work in haute-couture and that is not fashion. Fashion has nothing to do with dressing women well. It’s what business-people churn out four times a year to make women feel they have to buy new clothes in order to be attractive and equal to other women. You spoke of inequality between the sexes, but believe me, it is inequality with their own sex that trouble women the most. Fashion exists to trigger a transaction, to be bought, worn, and discarded. I am not interested in fashion. And neither are you, I think?
NME: I had to get dressed in a hurry, otherwise I’d have missed the Eurostar.
NME: The boat-train . . . sort of.
AG: So, what exactly are you wearing?
NME: Just something I flung on. Ok, you want detail. It’s a black cotton boat-neck tee-shirt, worn over black linen trousers.
AG: That’s called a tee-shirt? That thing?
NME: Yup. Easy to wear, easy to wash.
AG: So is a floor cloth.
NME: I was not born to be a fashionista. I’m a writer. A writer’s wardrobe is ten kinds of elasticated trouser and one little black dress, bought in hope of a literary lunch. Writers can get lazy. After all, you don’t need to look chic in front of your computer. Typewriter, I mean.
AG: I don’t care for chic.
NME: I might have guessed. You don’t like fashion, or chic –
AG: I like style.
AG: Chic says ‘look at me, I’m sexy, I’m of the moment.’ Style says, ‘I am here. I am not my clothes, my clothes are me.’ Style endures. Style is grown up. Chic is for girls.
NME: And what about boys?
AG: I don’t design for boys. That’s what tailors are for.
NME: I meant men. If girls like chic and women like style, what do men like?
AG: Underwear, for the most part. By the way, did you know it is technically illegal for a woman to wear trousers in France? You might get arrested.
NME: Talking of which. The stealing, Alix. Let’s discuss.
AG: (Closes her eyes and throws her head back. Drums on the table with her short finger nails. I sense she’s a moment away from flouncing off.)
NME: The pirating of other designers’ work? I might not reach your sartorial high standards, but I never pirated designer fashion for a living.
AG: I never passed off other people’s designs as my own. What would have been the point of that? I copied the work of famous designers and I did it well – that’s why I got paid. And I didn’t get paid much.
NME: So that makes it all right?
AG: Please stop. Shame is the worst emotion in the world, worse than grief. Grief fades but as long as the mind can produce thoughts, there is shame. Now, please, ask me something nice.
NME: How about love – hang on, our wine’s arriving. Oh dear – I don’t think the waiter approves of my trousers.
AG: It isn’t the trousers, he thinks you are a man wearing nail varnish. What about love? You tell me. You’re much older.
NME: You’re throwing questions back at me, which is usually a sign that an interview has ended. Let’s clink glasses and drink to each other’s health.
AG: And happiness. You haven’t told me if I’ll be happy. How does my story end?
I didn’t get round to telling her as I had to hurry away, to catch the time warp that hovers in front of Paris Gare du Nord station on only the most improbable occasions. I swap the heat of the Paris streets in 1939 for the air-conditioned comfort of Eurostar, knowing I’ve left my girl on the lip of an abyss. What can I do, change history? I can write Alix’s continuing story but she’s in charge. She has to answer her own questions.