Her Unusual Gown

The photograph was taken at the most opportune time.  The studio of Professeur Edouard Stebbing had suddenly become oppressive and murky and his subject, the lady with the undulating body, Mademoiselle Paule Morly, would never be the same.

The artists that shouted and theorized in the cafes lining the Boulevard des Italiens – Tortone, Paris, Frascati, Francais – must have noticed it curling between the fumes of coffee and absinthe:  the gray, nautical scent of the ocean.  Even though it was over 100 miles from the coast, the Professeur’s workplace on the Boulevard seemed to rock on invisible waves.

Inside, Mademoiselle Morly had begun to notice the alterations in her dress – but they were not the type that would have been wrought by a seamstress’ fingers.  At first she was annoyed – for it had been chosen carefully for her:  a silk bandage wrapped about her curves, designed to adore her femininity.  But suddenly the fabric had turned chilly and uncomfortable and the folds clutched at her skin:  she felt them moving like currents, like the roaming tides.

The hem that had hobbled her ankles slowly, inexorably, extended into a shoreline of froth; she sensed the green motion ripple around her feet before drifting towards an unknown coastline.  The gown had become a living thing – as real as the elements, as muscular as the sea.  The silk had melted away, yet she was still covered.  But the seams had been replaced by latitudes and longitudes; her gown was no longer silk, but a verdant breath of fog and salt.

Paule no longer wore a crown of glass and paste (valuables were not necessary for a photo shoot, besides, they would not be safe on a Boulevard crowded with strident and starving artisans).   It had been replaced by fluttering tiers of coral, waving a jade invitation to invisible mermaids, deadly on their perches of seaweed and song. It was heavier than her cheap tiara, and her plump shoulders ached, but she did not mind.

She was aware of a tickling down her back – not unpleasant, but alarming all the same, like a stranger’s knowing fingers.  She looked, and saw that her shockingly transformed gown had grown a cape – as thin as an insect’s wings, a delicate membrane shining with jade droplets.  Bemused, she held it between her fingers, to observe the studio light through the delicate tissue.   And it was at this moment of pleasant bewilderment that Professeur Stebbing snapped his picture.









That was over 100 years ago.  The picture postcard of Mademoiselle Morly has had more than one owner since then.  Someone had lovingly traced the folds of her unusual gown with glue before sprinkling it with green and blue glitter.  And now it is mine.   I don’t think that her image to be accentuated any more – so I have chosen to write about her.

This distant miracle never made the headlines.  Was it too shocking – too unbelievable?  Whatever became of the lady?  Did she disappear – to join the green faces curling out of the absinthe bottles that winked from  the bars of the cafes?  Did she ever travel to the coast – to melt into the water, to join her sister sirens?

No one knows.  And perhaps that is best.






3 responses to “Her Unusual Gown

  1. This may be my favorite of your “fashion” posts. It truly is a delight. And how I smiled at the glitter. I remember well our childhood (and older than childhood) play with the glitter and glue. It was an almost irresistable temptation — perhaps as irresistable as that gown.

  2. shoreacres – thank you! The postcards that are obviously hand-decorated: with glitter or sequins, with watercolor…are far more appealing to me than the ones that have been professionally or even machine colored. That’s why I always go after the cards that are pre-1920. I love the ’20’s, but there is something about this earlier charm that I find irresistible.

  3. The actress Ellen Terry wore a gown covered with1000 shimmering beetles wings when she played Lady Macbeth in 1888. I have seen the reconstructed gown at her former home in Kent. I understand the beetles shed the wings naturally, but all the same it is a strange material to use. Your photo brought that memory back to my mind.

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